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Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Ceasar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The Ceasar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the Ceasar the things that are the Ceasar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Scholars such as Fabian Udoh and Christopher Zeichmann argue that the Taxation Episode couldn't have happened at the time of Jesus, because allegedly, no pre-70 tax has the features Mark's account ascribes to it. Zeichmann writes:

It is not immediately obvious which tax the Marcan Jesus discusses. The Gospel mentions three important features: (1) it was levied via census (κήνσος); (2) it was collected by coin (specifically a δηνάριον — but set aside that particular anachronism for the moment); and (3) it was paid to the reigning emperor (Καίσαρ). Phrased directly, no evidence suggests that any tax possessed all three of these features before the temple’s destruction. Mark locates the pericope in Jerusalem of Roman Judea, a province where a certain tax in Jesus’ time was collected visà-vis information gathered in the provincial census conducted in 6 CE. .. Although this was not technically a capitation tax (tributum capitis), it is unlikely that the legal distinction entailed a salient difference for the terminology among most Greek-speaking provincial denizens. One could sensibly infer that various census-based taxes all fell under Mark’s term κήνσος. This tax, how ever — the tributum soli — was exacted in kind rather than via coinage in Judea; that is, it was paid in goods rather than money. The fact that the Judean tributum soli was paid in harvested crops renders it moot for present purposes. Mark’s tax is explicitly paid with coin, a detail already noted to be essential to the pericope. It is therefore unlikely that Mark would term them κήνσος. In fact, no monetary capitation taxes are known at all in the southern Levant before the war, much less any paid in denarii or equivalent coinage (e.g., didrachm). In short, there was no κήνσος that a resident of Judea or Galilee paid to Καίσαρ with a δηνάριον or any other coin for that matter at the time. Whatever tax Mark had in mind, it did not exist during the life of Jesus.

Zeichmann goes on to conclude that the tax which Mark is referring to is the Fiscus Judaicus, which was implemented quite long after Jesus lived (after the Destruction of the Temple).

So my question is: Is the Taxation Episode Mark's literary creation? Moreover, does this mean that the Gospel of Mark dates to after 70 CE?

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    – Dottard
    Aug 16, 2022 at 10:43
  • 2
    Exactly the same argument can be mounted for the other accounts in Matt 22:15-22 and Luke 20:19-26. So why pick on Mark?
    – Dottard
    Aug 16, 2022 at 10:52
  • 2
    The authors of your quote should provide some evidence for their assertion that no such poll-tax was collected by Rome before 70 AD.
    – Dottard
    Aug 16, 2022 at 10:56
  • 2
    Please provide a reference to the article you are citing as mentioning the names of the authors is not enough to identify the article.
    – Robert
    Aug 16, 2022 at 13:55
  • @Robert Apologies. I have added the reference. Aug 18, 2022 at 13:12

3 Answers 3

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Unfortunately OP provided no references, and I am only aware of Zeichman making this claim - which is not accepted by the majority of scholars (I even doubt Udoh would accept it) and is a minority view, primarily because it is a misreading of the passage in Mark.

Udoh is a historian of taxation in Palestine and has never claimed that no tribute was paid to Rome before AD 70 - which would be a truly bizarre claim -- only that the tribute that was paid was not oppressive, and therefore it would make little sense for Udoh to argue that a debate about taxation could not have occurred prior to AD 70 as if jews were not subject to any tribute at all. So here, the lack of any references in the OP's question prohibits a full answer, as the vague "scholars say" is not a sufficient claim to prove who said what and in which context.

Let's look at the passage:

Mark 12:13–17 (KJV 1900)

13 And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. 14 And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute[κῆνσος] to Caesar, or not? 15 Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny[δηνάριον], that I may see it. 16 And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. 17 And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.

First, κῆνσος is a general term for tax. It covers all taxes, not just poll taxes. And the passage is clearly not about any specific tax but the general principle of whether it was a sin to pay taxes. There were examples of these types of taxes throughout the history of Roman administration well before AD 70:

κῆνσος, “tax,” is a Latin loanword (census) that was used in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew (cf. קְנָס qĕnās, DJPA, 497–98). Matthew follows Mark in using κῆνσος, but Luke uses φόρος, “tribute,” in his parallel account (20:22) and uses it again in L material where Jesus is accused of forbidding the Jewish people to pay tribute (23:2). On κῆνσος in the papyri, see BAG, 431, and MM, 343. The full meaning is enrollment (ἀπογράφειν) of names and assessment of property for the purpose of levying taxes (Luke 2:1–5); the word census or κῆνσος alone can mean “tax.” On hatred of taxes in the Herodian period, see Josephus, Ant. 17.11.2 §308. Following the removal of Archelaus in 6 C.E., Judas the Galilean urged Jews not to pay Roman tribute and incited a revolt (cf. Josephus, J.W. 2.8.1 §118; Ant. 20.5.2 §102). An event such as this and the passions it had aroused would still have been felt twenty-five years later when Jesus was asked about his opinion on whether to pay taxes to Caesar.

The subject of whether one should pay taxes was widely debated in Jesus' time, with many Pharisees believing it was a sin and Herodians believing it wasn't. This was a pre-AD 70 debate as no one would have it in the context of open war and Herodians ended as a viable political force within Palestine after AD 70 -- The last ruler of Herod survived until AD 92, but they were completely discredited after AD 70 and would not debate with Pharisees after that point as no Pharisee would associate with them. This is something Udoh at least would know.

The Pharisees and the Herodians held to very different views on this controversial subject. The Herodians (Ἡρῳδιανοί, from Latin Herodiani, meaning supporters of the Herodian rulers) believed that it was appropriate for Jews to pay taxes to Rome directly (as in Judea in the time of Jesus) or indirectly through the Herodian client-rulers (as in Galilee and Gaulanitis). The Pharisees, or at least those who approached Jesus, probably viewed the payment of taxes to Rome as idolatry. At least some Pharisees took this view (and some perhaps did not, if the rabbinic literature is any guide; cf. b. Pesaḥ. 112b; b. B. Qam. 113a). One should remember that Saddok the Pharisee was among the followers of Judas of Galilee (or Gaulanitis) at the time that he refused to pay taxes to Rome (cf. Josephus, Ant. 18.1.1 §§1–10; J.W. 2.8.1 §§117–18).

So how can Zeichman misread the passage in such an obvious way? Because he is an expert on coinage and he ignores what the passage is about -- the raging debate between the Pharisees and the Herodians as to whether it was a sin to pay taxes, which firmly dates it pre-AD 70 -- and obsesses over the mention of "denarius", as that is his area of study. Moreover it doesn't appear that Zeichman knew about the various tax revolts that happened pre AD 70 and so he thinks that there was no κῆνσος levied even though we have clear examples of it being levied. His research confirmed a large increase in denarii after the first Roman war - as Rome gave coinage to its soldiers and workers and thus after any building project or military presence the region would have more coins. From this banal observation, Zeichman steps out of his lane to conclude, via a type of anthropic argument, that Mark was probably written after AD 70, even though denarii were present in Palestine and circulated at the time of Christ (and well before), but in smaller numbers than after AD 70. The spurious argument that this must have been a poll tax that was payable only with a denarius is simply not present in this passage, which discusses the principle of paying tribute (which we know was being paid), using an example denarius (that we know was in circulation) to illustrate a point that money is the creation of the state but that man is God's creation, and each should be given their due, thus resolving the religious debate about whether paying taxes was a sin.

Thus Zeichman's view is not a mainstream view and is not shared by any major commentary, whether critical or exegetical, of Mark.


Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, vol. 34B, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2001), 246.

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  • 1
    I agree with @Robert's answer. I'd only disagree on the question of Pharisaic attitudes toward Rome. IMO quite a few Pharisees may have allowed the legality of paying Roman taxes in Jesus' day. However, by the time Mark was written they had largely coalesced along with the Zealots against Rome in the run-up to the Great Revolt. Aug 16, 2022 at 20:46
  • I base this view in part on the Jewish Encyclopedia's article on the houses of Hillel and Shammai, which says: "Under the guidance of Judas the Gaulonite (or Galilean) and of Zadok, a Shammaite (Tosef., 'Eduy. ii. 2; Yeb. 15b), a political league was called into existence, whose object was to oppose by all means the practise of the Roman laws. ... [eventually] the Shammaites gained the upper hand in all disputes affecting their country's oppressors.,,These feelings grew apace, until toward the last days of Jerusalem's struggle they broke out with great fury. Aug 16, 2022 at 21:07
  • @DanFefferman Yes, I shouldn't say all Pharisees opposed paying taxes, only some did. I'll clarify
    – Robert
    Aug 16, 2022 at 21:24
  • Good answer to a vague question. +1.
    – Dottard
    Aug 16, 2022 at 23:12
  • Great answer, +1 Aug 17, 2022 at 4:51
2

This pericope reads as clever satire with multiple layers of duplicity.

The plot opens with the Pharisees and Herodians insincerely flattering Jesus before the crucial question is asked, but he sees through the ploy and gives the answer that would satisfy both parties if they wére sincere. Give back Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's. But there is more to it.

When Jesus asks what is the image and inscription on the denarius, they answer Caesar's, but what is not mentioned is that on many denarii of the first century the name of the Caesar is accompanied by the title divi filius and any citizen in the empire who was accustomed to Roman coinage would know that. It would render the distinction in the answer between Caesar and God moot, so it is a joke.

BTW if anybody would pay the Judean temple tax with Roman denarii the coins would not be allowed because of the image of Caesar and his inscribed divine pretensions on top of that.

Another possible joke could be hidden in the fact that Jesus did not give the coin back after his answer. Did he pocket it himself? In the gospel of Thomas in saying nr 100 an extra sentence is added: "They showed Jesus a gold piece and said to him: Caesar's men demand tribute from us. He said to them: What belongs to Caesar, give to Caesar; what belongs to God, give to God; and what is mine, give it to me."

No wonder the Pharisees were flabbergasted, they were duped.

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Robert gave an excellent answer; I'd like to contribute just 3 additional points:

  1. This story would not have been written with reference to the post-70 Fiscus Judaicus--a tax that was levied upon the Jews to fund the pagan temple of Jupiter Capitolinus (source), as something of a punishment for the Great Revolt. This is particularly evident when comparing Mark's account to the parallel account in Matthew (Matthew was written to a Jewish-Christian audience). The Fiscus Judaicus was a tax even more aggravating to the Jews than pre-70 taxes had been, and no Jewish-Christian writer post-70, hoping to make his religion look good, would invent a story casting this tax in a neutral-to-favorable light.

  2. Mark was written in Greek to an audience in Rome (multiple Patristic writers tell us of the Roman provenance, notably Clement of Alexandria). While it is possible that some of Jesus' teachings were in Greek, most of them would not have been. Therefore, Mark is providing a translation of much of what Jesus said, and in writing to a Roman audience he naturally uses the currency familiar to Rome. This does not mean the original word used by Jesus was "denarius" (this alone undoes Zeichmann's argument). Indeed, in the parallel account in Matthew, Jesus does not say "denarius".

  3. The Pharisees & Herodians aren't out collecting taxes; they're trying to lay a trap for Jesus (which is ultimately unsuccessful):

  • If Jesus speaks against the tax, the Herodians will have him arrested for defying Rome
  • If Jesus speaks in favor of the tax, the Pharisees will stir up the people against Him

This conflict within Judaism reflects a reality prior to the Great Revolt, not after.

The Synoptics do not show Jesus speaking in favor of funding a pagan temple (and if they did, Matthew would have it twice! see Matt. 17:24-27); they speak to a Jewish-Roman relationship that existed during Jesus' lifetime.

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  • 1
    Thanks for the additional points! Aug 18, 2022 at 13:16

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