Jesus, the Rabbis, and the Image on a Coin

One of the best-known, and most puzzling, stories of Jesus’ life is the tale of an encounter concerning the image on a coin.

The story appears in Matthew 22: 15-22, Mark 12: 13-17, and Luke 20: 19-26. It is almost the same in all three places.

According to the story, some of Jesus’ opponents among the Pharisees sent people to trick Jesus into saying something that would provide a pretext for his arrest.

[The Pharisees were the religious grouping who initiated the reforms and reinterpretations of Torah that became Rabbinic Judaism, and who in general sided with the poor against the Roman occupation and its allies in the Jewish "establishment." Some scholars today see Jesus as himself a Pharisee , among their "radical" wi ng. In that case, "the Pharisees" as a body were probably not his opponents, but some among them probably were.]

One of them asked him: "Rabbi, we know that what you speak and teach is sound; you pay deference to no one, but teach in all honesty the life-path that God requires.

"Give us your ruling on this: Are we or are we not permitted to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor?"

Jesus saw through their trick and said to them, "Show me a silver coin. Whose image is on this coin, and whose inscription?"

Let us pause for a moment. What was the "trick"? Since the coin had Caesar’s image on it, with the inscription "Divus" -- "God" -- use of the coin might constitute idolatry in Jewish law, and thus be forbidden. But by Roman law the taxes must be paid. So the "trick" was that by answering one way, Jesus would break Jewish law; by answering the other way, he would break Roman law. Either way, he would be subject to arrest.

But Jesus had not quite answered. Instead, he had answered the question with a question. (Says the folklore, this is an old Jewish habit. As it is taught, "Why does a Jew answer a question with a question?" Answer: "Why not?" )

According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus answered: "Whose image is on this coin?"

The man who had challenged him answered, "Caesar’s!"

And then Jesus did respond: "So give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s."

This answer, say Matthew, Mark, and Luke, took his opponents by surprise, and they went away and left him alone.

But for two thousand years, Christians have argued over what this answer meant. What is Caesar’s, and what is God’s? Does the answer suggest two different spheres of life, one ruled by Caesar and one by God? Does it mean to submit to Caesar’s authority in the material world, while adhering to God in the spiritual world? How do we discern the boundary?

Why did the questioners go away? Was it simply because Jesus had avoided the horns of the dilemma they had brought, and so could not be arrested for his answer?

Or was there a deeper meaning to the answer? Is the answer simply a koan, an answer that forces the questioner to seek a deeper question or break through into enlightenment?

Now let us introduce a passage from the Babylonian Talmud, that compilation of the wisdom, the debates and dialogues, the puns and the parables, the philosophic explorations and the practical decisions, of thousands of rabbis living over a period from about the beginning of the Common Era to about 500 CE, some in Babylonia and some in the Land of Israel.

Our passage from the Talmud appears on Sanhedrin 38a (Soncino transl., p. 240):

Our Rabbis taught: Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler Who is beyond all Rulers. the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler [like the Roman Emperor] mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was shaped in the Divine Image [Gen. 1: 27], "b’tzelem elohim," "in the Image of God." And yet not one of them resembles another.

Let us absorb this. The Rabbis drew an analogy between the image a human ruler puts upon the coins of the realm, and the Image the Infinite Ruler puts upon the many "coins" of humankind. The very diversity of human faces shows forth the Unity and Infinity of God, whereas the uniformity of imperial coins makes clear the limitations on the power of an emperor.

Now reread the story of Jesus with a single line and gesture added:

"Whose image is on this coin?" asks Jesus.

His questioner answers, "Caesar’s!"

Then Jesus puts his arm on the troublemaker’s shoulder and asks, "And Whose Image is on this coin?"

Perhaps the troublemaker mutters an answer; perhaps he does not need to. Not till after this exchange does Jesus say, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s."

Now there is a deeper meaning to the response, and to the troublemaker’s exit. Jesus has not just avoided the question and evaded the dilemma: He has answered, in a way that is much more radical than if he had said either "Pay the tax" or "Don’t pay the tax" -- a way that is profoundly radical, but gives no obvious reason for arrest.

Jesus has not proposed dividing up the turf between the material and the spiritual. He has redefined the issue:

"Give your whole self to the One Who has imprinted Divinity upon you! -- You, you who are one of the Rabbis, my brother Rabbi -- you know that is the point of this story! All I have done is to remind you!"

The coin of the realm will matter very little, if the troublemaker listens.

So the questioner walks away, suddenly profoundly troubled by the life-question that he faces.

We might ask, why does the line I have inserted not appear in the three versions of the story that we have?

It is possible that the line was censored out, as Christian tradition faced both the threats of an Empire to shatter this religion, and the invitation of an Empire to become the Established Church.

Or it is possible that Jesus never needed to say the words, because his "Pharisee" questioners understood the point perfectly well. After all, on the basis of the passage in the Talmud, we can easily imagine that the teaching comparing God’s Image on Adam to the Emperor’s image on the coinage was already well-known among the rabbis.

For me, this reading of the two passages -- one from Talmud, one from the New Testament -- brings with it two levels of greater wholeness, deeper meaning.

The first level is that each of the two passages enriches the meaning of the other. Read together, they fuse the spiritual and the political, instead of splitting the world into two domains. In this reading, the claim of the Divine Ruler to rule over an emperor includes the political realm. God can create infinite diversity and eternal renewal, and so is far richer than the imperial treasury -- which can create only uniformity and repetition. But this is not just a philosophical or biological point. Because God rules over all rulers, because God calls forth from every human being a unique face of God, each human being must follow God -- not Caesar.

Without the passage from the Rabbis of the Talmud, this meaning of Jesus’ response remains unclear. Without the tale of Jesus, the Talmud passage seems "merely theological" -- without a thrust into everyday life. To become whole and create wholeness in the world, the passages need each other.

Yet the editors and framers of the Talmud and New Testament took care that both passages appear in neither text. They were walled out against each other. So the second level of wholeness that this reading teaches me is the importance of mending the fringes of the Jewish and Christian traditions.

In Jewish tradition, what makes a garment holy is the careful, conscious tying of tzitzit -- a certain kind of fringes -- on the corners of a piece of clothing. Just as a landholder must let the poor and the landless harvest what grows in the corners of his field, so these corners of a garment remind us that it is not good fences make good neighbors; good fringes make good neighbors.

What makes a fringe a fringe is that it is a mixture of my own cloth and the universe’s air. What makes tzitzit tzitzit is that they are tied according to a conscious, holy pattern -- not left as helter-skelter fringes. They are fringes that celebrate their fringiness.

That is what we need between traditions. Not the dissolution of all boundaries, nor the sharpness of a wall, a fence -- but conscious, holy fringes.

I think these two passages are tzitzit of both traditions, reaching out as threads of connection that also honor the two different garments on which they are tied.

If we fail to tie such sacred fringes or let them become invisible, the garments lose their holiness. So let us turn with newly open eyes to see what Rabbi Jesus and the Rabbis of the Talmud shared, as well as where they differed.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Torah Portions: