They say that money is the root of all evil. Is it the root of Christianity too?
Adecisive moment in the life of Jesus Christ takes place three days before his death. The setting is the courtyard of the temple, one of his first stops in the city when he comes to Jerusalem to die. Jesus’ enemies—the orthodox Pharisees and the Herodian elites—are trying to back him into a corner. They are questioning his credentials. Having buttered him up with praise, they ask:
What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
He knows the question is a trap. He knows that here, in the religious and political center of Roman Palestine, his answer may generate less light than heat. He tells them to show him a “penny” (the original Greek used in the gospel calls it a dēnarion, identified as the silver denarius) which would be used to pay the tribute. When they bring him one, he asks whose name and image are engraved on it. “Caesar’s,” they reply, to which he gives his famous admonition:
Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
Tradition interprets this passage, more or less, as a simple “yes” to the question of paying Roman tribute. Most Christians learn this story as a lesson in civic responsibility, told by a Jesus who has no problem with authority. This is the Jesus of my Evangelical grade school, the lover of god and country, the dutiful patriot who pays his tax and tithe alike. It’s the Christ of my Catholic high school, the Christ who, despite having been murdered by the Romans, doesn’t seem to mind that his vicar on Earth is based in Rome. This Jesus is an early proponent of separating church and state, with each domain commanding duties which are separate, if not exactly equal, but still mutually compatible. This Christ is an obedient, wholesome bore.
Oddly enough, this wasn’t how he was interpreted at the time. A few days later, the same enemies from the “tribute penny” episode are present at Jesus’ trial, where they accuse him of some very specific crimes: “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar.” Now, it’s possible that they’re lying, that their charge is entirely a bad-faith misrepresentation. At the same time, their tribute question wouldn’t make sense to begin with had they not had reason to think he might say “no.” In fact, they had a solid reason. The Roman tribute was hardly a trivial matter. In the years before and after Jesus’ trial, the tribute was a national scandal; a tax protest three decades later led up to a revolution. A wandering cult leader from Nazareth who preached the coming “kingdom of God” was just the sort of guy who might be up to something similar. If this was so, and their allegation was true, then the “tribute penny” episode isn’t just a wholesome teachable moment. It’s a clue to what Jesus Christ was really all about—it’s something like a seditious manifesto.
Christian theology insists that Jesus was “obedient unto death,” but Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a first-century Judean, culturally descendant from ancient Israel, who worshipped the Hebrew deity Yahweh in the manner of the temple cult based in Jerusalem. His followers observed Mosaic law and remained active in synagogues and in the temple long after his execution. The scholar David Daube (who was the teacher of my biblical law professor, Calum Carmichael) has identified the “tribute penny” story as belonging to a scheme of questions in early rabbinical literature. The tribute question is a quiz about the halakha, or religious law; Jesus’ interrogators are testing him on Torah. They know, as well as he does, the first commandments of the Decalogue: the injunction not to worship any sovereign except Yahweh, and the prohibition of “graven images.” They know the tribute is a pickle in that regard, because it (1) pays respect to a foreign ruler (2) using coins with pagan iconography. They know Jesus can’t say so publicly, lest he be arrested for incitement. They also know he can’t deny it, lest he expose himself as a sell-out. Jesus’ solution is ingenious. To the halakhically illiterate, his answer sounds subservient enough: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. But to the religious pedants out to get him, the ones who should know better, he winks and nudges to an old biblical subtext that tells us what exactly belongs to God:
You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember Yahweh your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. If you ever forget Yahweh your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.
The imperial tax was more than economically extractive. It was humiliating, nationally as well as spiritually, in that it served a sovereign other than the local king and the national deity he represented. Likewise, dependency on foreign coinage was a raw deal, on monetary grounds and symbolic ones; for coins engraved with Rome’s insignia were vectors of imperial propaganda. Material practices gave rise to the spiritual. For a devout Judean such as Jesus, who insisted on Yahweh’s sovereignty and the need for Torahnic purity, what sort of practices might we expect? The gospels clue us in with the fact that Jesus has to ask for a tributary denarius; presumably, he doesn’t have one of his own. But his interrogators do, and he is quick to call them “hypocrites.” Here is a man who gained a reputation eschewing money, spurning the rich, and performing miracles (turning water into wine, feeding loaves and fish to the 5,000) that got around the need for doing commerce. The one time he pays a tax, it is not to Rome but to the temple in Jerusalem, and under extraordinary circumstances to the say the least. He was allergic to money, or at least its ordinary use in the time of Rome and Herod. Just one day before the tribute question, Jesus caused a scene when he stormed in and “cleansed” the temple by driving out the money-changers. It was the first and only recorded act of violence in his remarkable career, and a fitting start to the fateful week that ended with his execution. (In the non-synoptic gospel of John, the temple cleansing happens at the very beginning of his ministry, a different way of telling the same story.)
There is a tendency in secular or left-leaning circles to reimagine Jesus as something like a proto-communist. I disagree; he was more like a religious fundamentalist. And as a fundamentalist, his main concerns were sovereignty and purity at a time when Palestine was under foreign yoke and foreign influence. Foreign rule expressed itself materially, and so did Jesus’ ministry: in the form of economic resistance. He repudiated money—not in itself, but as a token of foreign contamination—and the collaborationist regime that it pumped through. Read in this light, his call to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is not a statement of submission. It’s one of separation—of separating the wheat from chaff, the pure from the unclean—which meant rejecting Roman coins and commerce altogether. This doesn’t sound like the Christian Jesus, the apolitical Jesus, the one they call the Christ because he died, instead of what he did that got him killed. But the sentiment was not unusual. It was in the air in first-century Palestine, a time of doomsday cults and insurrectionists, terrorists and fanatics, prophets in the desert heralding a revolution. This Jesus has been buried under centuries of dogma, stripped of his material history, crowned with supernatural thorns, nailed to a cross of piety and platitude. Tradition tells us to take up that cross and follow him. But to understand what’s really going on with Jesus Christ, you have to follow the money.
The Romans conquered Palestine in the first century B.C. Before that, Palestine was ruled by the hellenistic Seleucids. Between empires, however, Judeans had about a century of independence. The revolt of the nationalist “Maccabees”—commemorated every year in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah—installed to power the short-lived Hasmonean dynasty of Jerusalem. The Hasmoneans were a priestly family, members of the clerical aristocracy in the temple-state through which the empire had administered and taxed the region. The Hasmoneans took advantage of Seleucid decline to seize autonomy for the temple-state, which they ruled in a clerical dictatorship that turned into a monarchy. They were not descendent from the house of David, legendary king of ancient Israel, and their descent from the high priest Zadok was still questionable; so the Hasmoneans’ assumption of both offices was not without its critics. But what they lacked in legitimacy they made up in theocratic zeal. The Hasmoneans not only tried to purge the kingdom of its hellenistic influences, but also extended its frontiers, annexing neighboring regions such as Galilee and Samaria and centralizing Torahnic rule by ethnic cleansing and forced conversion. They also began to mint their own indigenous bronze currency. In accordance with a strict interpretation of Mosaic law, their coins were aniconic, stamped with floral or geometric patterns unlike the living things on Gentile coinage. The ethos of their rule was summed up in the call-to-arms by the Hasmonean patriarch, Mattathias: “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and who stands by the covenant follow me!” Shortly before he died, he left these famous words to posterity:
Pay back the Gentiles what they deserve, and observe the precepts of the law.
These salad days of Judean independence came screeching to a halt with the enthronement of King Herod I, vassal of Rome, in 37 B.C. Herod’s reign is known to history for his tyranny and oppression; he also modernized his kingdom with ambitious building projects and infrastructural development. The story often goes that Herod’s opulent achievements came at the expense of the rural poor in Palestine. Scholars like Fabian Udoh and Anthony Keddie have cast doubt on whether Herod’s kingship was really all so bad as tradition makes it seem. What’s clear is that his reign was marked by extensive material change in Palestine, the extermination of the Hasmonean line, and the rise in wealth and power of a new, more cosmopolitan and international elite. His reconstruction of the temple turned it into a lavish monument based on biblical designs, but its architecture also featured Greek and Roman influence. His coins, likewise, were aniconic, but bore a Greco-Roman sensibility. A collaborator through and through, Herod was viewed naturally with suspicion, if not disdain, by traditional and nationalistic elements. That Herod was himself of “foreign” origin—an Idumean, descendent of converts, and ethnically Arab—was not lost on his detractors. That he installed a golden Roman eagle on the entrance to the temple didn’t help.
Herod died around 4 B.C. His monarchy became a tetrarchy, split among his sons. One such son, Archelaus, was so incompetent that Rome deposed him and annexed his land directly under Roman rule, as a satellite of Syria called Iudaea. It was in this newly established province of Iudaea that the Syrian governor Quirinius called a census, in A.D. 6, to assess the tribute owed by its inhabitants to Rome.
Around this time, a man from Galilee called Judas started fomenting a revolt against the Roman tax. The idea was that tribute would be tantamount to slavery and service to a lord who wasn‘t Yahweh. The first-century historian Josephus describes Judas’ movement as the religion’s “fourth philosophy,” a sect of militant fanatics who thought resistance to foreign rule was nothing less than a spiritual duty. Zeal was back in style. A zealous spirit had been simmering in the countryside, stirring the pious and the poor, bubbling up in various uprisings that made the rulers nervous. Doomsday prophets called the masses to repentance in the wilderness; insurgents rose among the peasants to proclaim themselves as “king.” There were Simon of Perea, Herod’s former slave, and a shepherd in Judea called Athronges, both of whom attempted to usurp the throne in the wake of Herod’s death. There were the vanquished rebels Jacob and Simon, sons of the tax-resisting Judas; two other rebel Judases, in Galilee and in Jerusalem, similarly put down; and a quashed prophetic movement led by someone named, of all things, Theudas. Bandit warlords terrorized the mountains and the villages, while in Jerusalem, acolytes of the “fourth philosophy” called sicarii (or “dagger-men”) waged a terrorist campaign against Judean collaborators. In the midst of these disturbances, another sect leader from Galilee turned heads by assaulting money-changers and equivocating about taxes; he was crucified for sedition beneath a placard with his moniker, “King of the Judeans.”
By the second half of the century, tensions between Rome and its Judean malcontents boiled over to a full-blown revolution. Yet another son of the Galilean Judas, the sicarii leader Menahem, emerged as its charismatic leader; but the would-be king was killed before the war was truly in full swing. His cousin, Eleazar, held out for several years in the infamous fortress of Masada, but the real action was in Jerusalem, where competing rebel factions struggled for control. A provisional government led by moderate priests was toppled by the so-called Zealots, variously in conflict or coalition with the monarchial John of Gischala and his rival, the royal pretender Simon bar Giora. The rebels held Jerusalem through four sectarian, bloody years. They cut off tribute to the empire, purged the aristocracy, and burned the archives of debt records. They even got the chance to mint some coinage of their own. But in A.D. 70, Titus sacked the holy city. In the ruined streets of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, coins with the hated image of the emperor became current, along with a special-edition mint engraved with a humiliating reminder: IVDAEA CAPTA. It is likely that such coins were used to pay the fiscus Iudaicus (“Judean tax”) imposed after the war, which replaced the yearly temple tax Judeans paid before Jerusalem’s destruction. Their funds were sent instead to the temple of Jupiter in Rome.
In this brief history of Palestine before and after Jesus Christ, a few key themes emerge. It’s a story about sovereignty and subjugation, national purity and foreign influence, tradition and innovation, kingship and aristocracy, resistance and repression—all converging, in some way, on money. The first century was a period of increasing monetization and taxation in Roman Palestine, with all the social and political tumult that entails. This is more than just the background context of the life of Jesus Christ. It is, I think, the driving tension of his story. Why would the gospel set the birth of Christ explicitly during the tax census of Quirinius? Why does the book of Acts name Judas, the fanatical tax resister, as Jesus’ precursor? What’s up with all the coins that keep appearing, in parables and episodes throughout Jesus’ ministry, right until the end—when a rather different Judas, the Iscariot, sells out the Christ for 30 coins of silver?
The simplest answer (and the most banal one) is that it’s all a moral lesson: something trite about the evils of worldliness and greed. “No man can serve two masters,” Jesus sermonizes on the mount: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” But even here, the language is highly suggestive of something more than moralistic; it’s about service or allegiance—something political. The question of allegiance was the pressing and persistent issue of his time, after two successive Judean dynasties had failed to secure a lasting independence, and people were looking for alternatives. Their hopes were spiritual in nature, but their spirituality corresponded to a national struggle over the fiscal and monetary realities in a period of imperial integration. The spiritual wasn’t severable from the material. God and Mammon weren’t simply metaphors, at least not as they’re typically understood. And it was in the throes of this material struggle that a Nazarene called Jesus amassed a following who considered him the “messiah”: the alleged heir of the house of David who might restore the rightful monarchy of Judea.
The “tribute penny” story is the closest thing we have to an explicitly political comment made by Jesus. The problem is, it’s likely ahistorical. Nowadays, most scholars are agreed that the Roman denarius didn’t circulate in Palestine until well after the death of Christ. Another silver coin, the tetradrachm of Antioch, also bore the image of Rome’s emperor; but tetradrachms were rare in Palestine as well. The common silver coin in the time and place of Jesus Christ was actually the shekel of nearby Tyre, which bore the face of the god Melqart and not of Caesar. So the coin which Jesus held wasn’t likely Roman, as believed, and his opinion of the tribute—whether for it or against it—wasn’t strictly based on whether Caesar’s face was on it.
It’s possible that the “tribute penny” narrative was altered or embellished; perhaps it never happened. But the historical exactitude of the gospel story isn’t terribly important. What’s important is the fact that the gospel authors wrote it, because it tells us how Christ and his message were remembered by the movement which he led. By the time the gospels were being written, some time after A.D. 70, the denarius would have been current. More importantly, the denarius would have been used to pay the even more detested fiscus Iudaicus, a token of Judea’s misery and defeat. The Jesus movement must have seen a link between their struggle and that of their executed leader. The later use of Roman coinage only reinforced what the Roman tax in Jesus’ time already stood for: Judeans’ subjugation to foreign rule. Monetary standardization simplified and promoted tax collection, to say nothing of its extra burdening with fees and rates of exchange. The presence of pagan icons added insult to multiple injuries.
Likewise, it’s unimportant whether Christ was born during the reign of Herod, as the gospel of Matthew has it, or ten years later in the census of Quirinius, as told in the gospel of Luke. Both nativity stories share the same essential theme. Luke situates Christ’s birth to coincide directly with the imposition of the Roman tribute; perhaps Jesus’ life, like the infants born at the start of India’s statehood in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is destined to be bound to the broader currents of his place in history. Luke’s Christ is born at the same time as the tax resistance sparked by Judas, his fellow Galilean: Christ and the revolt grow up in parallel. Matthew provides a counter-narrative. The nativity plot kicks off with three foreign kings in the court of Herod, a leader known for his subservience to foreign rule. In a remarkable inversion, the foreign kings depart the court to find the infant Jesus, bearing myrrh and gold and frankincense. They end up paying him tribute instead.
These narrative choices aren’t incidental. They embed the life and legacy of Jesus in the money politics of his century. And given his reputation as a possible messiah, his message must have had political content. He was a fanatic for Yahweh’s sovereignty: “there is none good but one, that is, God.” He was an extremist for Mosaic law: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets…Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law.” In the years after his death, his followers in Jerusalem called themselves “zealots for the Torah.” This word is significant, for “zeal” was not reducible to belief, but carried with it social consequences. The Torah’s archetype of zeal was Phinehas, the “zealous” priest whom Yahweh blessed after he murdered a fellow Israelite for sleeping with a Gentile, on the grounds that miscegenation was a slippery slope (if not equivalent) to idolatry. More near in time to Jesus, zeal had been the watchword of Hasmonean separatism and supremacy. By A.D. 68, it was the chief defining feature of the revolutionary hardliners whom history remembers as the Zealots.
The list of the Torah’s Decalogue which I learned in my childhood differs slightly from how it’s numbered in Jewish traditions. Protestants tend to list the injunction not to worship other gods, and the prohibition of graven images, as two separate commandments; the Talmud lumps them together into one. The Talmudic framing underscores how closely linked unfaithfulness to Yahweh and material idolatry were in Judeans’ minds. What’s more, it shows how central making offerings was to the very concept of worship. After all, the Torah’s central institution, the temple in Jerusalem, wasn’t just a “place of worship” in the modern sense of the term; it was something like a national bank, fiscal authority and political administration all at once. The use and form of money weren’t neutral, in other words. They were a point of the utmost spiritual, and political, importance.
Jesus was sensitive to this fact, and made it a core part of his mission. When a wealthy man approaches him and asks him how to receive salvation, Jesus says:
Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.
The rich man says he does all that—has done them since his youth—but Christ is unimpressed. There’s “one thing” the man still lacks, which it turns out he’s not quite willing to do:
Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.
This passage is significant for what it says as much as for what it doesn’t. Jesus is quoting the Ten Commandments, but he is strangely short by four. Of those he does include, one of them (“Defraud not”) isn’t from the Decalogue at all. The above transcription comes from Mark, the first of the gospels to be written; Luke’s version omits the surplus commandment, while Matthew swaps it out for yet another extra-Mosaic rule (“love thy neighbor as thyself”). Some people suppose that the additional commandments merely paraphrase or explicate the tenth (“Thou shalt not covet”). In any case, what all the included commandments have in common is that they deal with inter-personal ethics—how one treats and lives with others. What all the lists leave out are the Decalogue’s first four—the proper ways to worship Yahweh.
Theologians and preachers have come up with all sorts of ways to explain these inconsistencies. One idea is that the extra commandments were inserted to stand out and identify the rich man’s sin, so that Jesus can call his bluff: his riches and his wealth confirm he has defrauded others, or failed to love his neighbors. But nothing in the text suggests this; in fact, the dialogue is set up clearly to distinguish the named commandments, which he obeys, from the “one thing” besides that he is missing. What the wealthy man is missing, per Jesus’ list, is proper reverence for Yahweh. And the corrective Jesus prescribes—to bring him nearer to his god—is simply to get rid of all his money.
One may presume that any given man of means in the time of Christ was in leagues with the Romans. At the very least, he would have been the beneficiary of an economic system implicated, and integrated, with Roman rule. Wealth was visible in their appearance—their clothing dyed with murex mollusks, their jewelry of rare imported gemstones—and in their property—imported stamped clay fineware, in mansions and Roman villas. It was distinctive, too, on money itself: their silver shekels minted in Tyre, unlike the indigenous bronze held by the commoners. Things were changing noticeably, and materially, in first-century Roman Palestine. The traditional lands of royal estates were given over to the private hands of landlords; meanwhile, debts continued to compound among the landless, and jobs ran dry when building projects, like Herod’s temple, reached their end. These entrenched the gaps in wealth and power between the classes, made all the more apparent by a cultural divide that grew between traditionalists and the newer, non-traditional, cosmopolitan elites. Inequality and imperialism were two sides of the coin, and both usurped the lawful blessings owed to Yahweh and his people.
This was the pulse of the Jesus movement. It aligned with the peasantry and laborers and other downtrodden groups, and opposed what it perceived to be a decadent elite. It attracted the poor and the indebted and defecting tax collectors: people with good reason to resist the existing state of things. What Jesus claimed to offer was a kingdom (in the here and now; or rather, there and then) governed by a renewed Mosaic covenant, under the guidance of a legitimate heir of David. The details of Jesus’ kingdom are fuzzy—he speaks in parables and riddles—but his teachings convey an idealized economy free from the Roman fiscal and monetary regimes. It’s an economy based on reciprocity, mutual aid, forgiveness of debt and solidarity: the sort of thing that peasants yearn for from a benevolent once-and-future king. Money might have its place in it, as a thing to be redistributed, in line with the principles of the Torah and Yahweh’s covenant. The already affluent—those who profited under Roman rule, and at the expense of Yahweh’s people, and who were hardly keen to give it up—these enfortuned wretches were less lucky. In the immortal words of Jesus Christ:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
If the gospels are any indication, the way that Jesus goes about establishing his kingdom seems rather uneventful. The teaching of parables and performance of miracles, while impressive maybe to some, aren’t quite the stuff of national liberation. But skim too quickly past the supernatural, and you’ll miss the cosmic war he’s waging all throughout his ministry, in his prolific career as an exorcist of demons. Purging “impure spirits” out from the afflicted isn’t only a side hustle; as Jesus states, it’s an essential part of what it means to bring about the kingdom. The synoptic gospels show Jesus engaged, from the very beginning of his ministry, in a nation-wide campaign against the Devil and his minions. The gospel of John omits this practice in a literal sense, but incorporates it as his mission’s message: “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” Again, it’s unimportant whether Jesus was historically in the business of demonic eviction, or if this, like other supernatural feats, can be assumed to have a legendary or literary origin. The important thing is what the stories show about how Jesus and his movement understood what he was up to. In fact, it is precisely in the exorcisms that Jesus’ messiahship comes out. The demons he ejects confess that he is “the Holy One of God,” and they know he’s “come to destroy” them; in Mark, they’re the only ones who recognize it publicly. “Possession” is, of course, a type of invasion by a foreign entity who occupies and controls its subject. The task of the exorcist, like that of the messiah, is to expel the occupier. When Jesus exorcises the demoniac of Gerasa, the impure spirit discloses its identity: “My name is Legion.” Legion—as in the Roman legions, the occupying armies of the empire. As if to hammer in the point, Jesus expels the demon Legion and sends it into a herd of pigs (the unclean, unkosher animals of the Gentiles, which Jewish tradition compares unfavorably to Rome) and drowns them in the sea where they belong.
At some point or another, the exorcisms of Jesus got the attention of his rival sect, the Pharisees. Experts of the halakha, the Pharisees were something of a moderate intelligentsia. Though critical of the establishment, they were functionaries nonetheless of the temple cult and so inured to existing power. To them, a peasant sect leader from Galilee on a messianic mission to expel the nation’s impurities couldn’t have been up to any good. Their guess is that it’s sorcery: they accuse Jesus of commanding spirits in the name of Beelzebul, “prince of the devils.” Jesus, in turn, accuses them of doing the same. He goes on to suggest that he is actually at war with Beelzebul, which may just be another name for Satan, and reminds them of the stakes involved:
And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand...
He that is not with me is against me.
Readers of John Milton and fans of Freddie Mercury will be more familiar with the spelling “Beelzebub,” which is how the Vulgate and the King James Version render it. That spelling was selected by reference to “Baʽal-Zebub,” a god of the enemy Philistines mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, whose name means “lord of the flies.” (The term zebul in the original gospel manuscripts is more mysterious. “Baʽal-Zebul” may mean “lord of the house” or “lord of the heavens”; alternatively, it’s a belittling pun on zebel, meaning “dung,” producing the epithet “lord of dung”—or perhaps, more fittingly, “lord of shit.” Incidentally, both zebub and zebel have a coprophiliac effect.) The biblical story of ancient Israel is really a struggle between Yahweh and the various Baʽals of the Levant, a struggle that was spiritual as well as fiercely territorial. And there was one Baʽal in particular with whom the Pharisees were notably, and hypocritically, acquainted: Baʽal-Melqart of the Phoenicians, whose face was stamped on the silver coins of Tyre.
As mentioned earlier, the Tyrian shekel was the common silver currency in first-century Roman Palestine. The temple in Jerusalem preferred (some say required) the use of Tyrian shekels to pay the yearly temple tax, which the Pharisees’ legal reasoning endorsed. The Pharisees were concerned above all else with halakhic purity, and the silver content of the shekel was quite pure. This purity—along with their privileged position as lawmen from Jerusalem—would explain the Pharisees’ toleration of an otherwise pagan coin. It also encapsulates how they differed from the Jesus movement. It’s often presumed that Christ opposed the Pharisees’ “legalistic” purism, against which he advanced a laxer, more charitable and wishy-washy “spirituality.” That isn’t quite right. Look more closely, and you’ll see that nowhere does Jesus negate the law, but only the Pharisaic interpretations; he’s engaged in a constitutional debate with his opponents. If anything, his interpretations are more strenuous, not less. (It’s not enough to refrain from murder, for example—one must affirmatively get along with others.) His problem with the Pharisees is that they aren’t pure enough. The Pharisees’ stance on pagan coins and the temple tax was a flagrant representative of this problem. In their concern for metallic purity and the economics of the temple, they neglected, as the rich man did, the most fundamental rule of all.
The scholar Richard Horsley describes their feud in regional terms. Big-city lawyers like the Pharisees had less influence in a rural place like Galilee, where local folk religion flourished independently of official temple Yahwism. It was more conducive, if not entirely receptive, to the “old-time religion” of a fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist. The temple tax itself was a recent innovation, more the product of scribal exegesis than prophetic inspiration. (We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the fundamentalist sect at Qumran opposed the annual temple tax, on the grounds that the Torah sanctioned only a one-time offering.) When the temple’s lackeys come to collect, they assume that Jesus doesn’t pay it. Eventually he does, but not before insisting to his disciple Simon Peter that he really shouldn’t have to, and he is only capitulating “lest we should offend them.” Ever the diplomat and pragmatist, Christ tells Peter to go fishing, and the required shekel is discovered, preternaturally, in the mouth of the first fish that he hooks.
It’s unsurprising that Jesus has to resort to the miraculous. There weren’t many Tyrian shekels to go around in rural Galilee to begin with, and a fundamentalist like Jesus likely wouldn’t have one if he could. The face of Melqart on the shekel would’ve called to mind the memory of Ahab, the wicked king of ancient Israel, whose Tyrian consort Jezebel brought ruin to the nation by sponsoring the worship of Tyre’s Baʽal. Well before the time of Christ, the prophet Micah drew a link between the ways of Ahab and the use of “wicked scales” and “deceitful weights”; he understood that spiritual and economic sins were intertwined. A fundamentalist may have been extra leery, then, of foreign gods and foreign money. The gospels never put it straight, but we can tell how Jesus felt about it. The very first thing he does upon his entry in Jerusalem is to go straight into the temple and expel the money-changers.
The temple cleansing (or better yet, its purification) is the immediate prequel to the “tribute penny” episode. Having demonstrated by deed just what he thinks of Baʽal, he is put to the test on what he thinks of Caesar. Once again, he lacks the coin himself. After soliciting a denarius, he points to the name and face engraved on it as proof of ownership: give back to Caesar what is his. But the fact that, as we now know, the denarius wasn’t yet in circulation gives his answer a new meaning: there was nothing of Caesar’s there for them to give. And if we take his words more broadly as a general principle, another reading is available: to “give back” would mean rejecting the circulation of Roman coinage from the start. “No man can serve two masters,” after all. This dilemma posed by Jesus comes into sharp relief in his answer’s second part, about rendering “unto God.” Jesus knew what Yahweh’s covenant demanded of his nation: everything they owned was owed to Yahweh. The payment of a tribute, the adoption of foreign money, and the collaboration with the empire that both these acts entailed were all affronts to the sovereign god of Moses. That god—“whose name is Jealous, [and] is a jealous God”—commanded Moses not to make peace treaties with the pagans, but to “destroy their altars” and “break their images.” To give that god his due required nothing less than fiscal and monetary sovereignty. Jesus’ answer is phrased so delicately as not to draw attention, but to discerning ears it was particularly evocative. It’s a paraphrase of the Hasmonean rebel Mattathias’ exhortation to “pay back the Gentiles what they deserve.” In the context of Judean discontent that soon erupted into war, the revolutionary message is on the nose.
The revolution came three decades later, in A.D. 66, right after coins with the emperor’s face started to circulate in earnest. And one of the first things the rebels did in revolutionary Jerusalem was to mint their own domestic silver currency. Like the Hasmoneans before them, the revolutionists of A.D. 66 kept their coinage kosher, steering clear from pagan iconography. Tyrian shekels with the face of Baʽal were melted and re-minted with nationalistic slogans and motifs. It was the first Judean silver coinage, and the last coins in the temple treasury, before its catastrophic fall in A.D. 70. So in their brief, triumphant moment of revolutionary defiance, Judeans purified their coins and consecrated them to Yahweh. They rendered unto God that which is God’s.
Jesus didn’t live to see it. His ministry took place smack-dab at the midpoint between the initial throb of fiscal revolt and the later monetary revolution. But his life and death were imbricated in this struggle. Economic integration was the material expression of those impurities which Jesus sought to exorcise from the country. At the end of his campaign, he was brought to trial on a charge of inciting tax resistance, but only after his betrayal by one of his own. It’s essential to the drama that Judas Iscariot be specifically a traitor, rather than an external foe, because the enemy in a war of exorcism is not outside, but within. The story of the traitor Judas brings to life the gospels’ warning that “no man can serve two masters”: in the books of Luke and John, the master Judas serves is Satan. To be more precise, he is satanically possessed. The gospels also mention a material motivation: a bribe of money, which Matthew indicates to have been 30 shekels of Tyrian silver. The lure of Satan and of silver are joined in the figure of the Iscariot, who personifies attachment to the comforts of old currency, and betrays the kingdom for the sake of Mammon and of Baʽal. It’s very telling that when Judas tries to return the money to the temple, his shekels are rejected as impure. The only fitting use for them is purchasing the nearby field of Akeldama, or “field of blood,” which the gospel tells us is a place to bury foreigners.
It’s bewildering to think about how much of global history was shaped by what amounts to an ancient conflict over coins. It’s even stranger to consider what deranged beliefs it may engender when stripped entirely of its historical context. Not simply ignorant of this history, many Christians take it further and project it into the future, subscribing to a credulous reading of the gospel message, in light of the book of Revelation, as a literal end-times prophecy. My Christian grade school taught us a version of this eschatological reading, inspired by the bestselling apocalyptic disaster-porn franchise Left Behind. Generations of likeminded Christians have dreamed up an elaborate and lurid eschatology, which includes a sequence of natural disasters, persecution of true-believers, and a final confrontation between the forces of Christianity and the one-world government of the “Antichrist.” As a condition of citizenship in the Antichrist’s dystopia, the wicked (that is to say, non-Christians) will worship Satan and accept the “mark of the beast”—only to perish in a spectacular orgy of blood and gore and godly vengeance. (In 2002, 59% of Americans believed that this will literally transpire. In 2013, 41% believed it’s happening now.)
With its figurative language and grotesque imagery, the book of Revelation is ripe for severe misunderstanding. One of the more enduring and fantastic passages in Revelation describes a vision of the author, John of Patmos, who sees a “beast rise up out of the sea.” John witnesses the fashioning of an “image of the beast”; all who refuse to worship it are slain. Those who do survive “receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
[N]o man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
From this cryptic passage, Christian apocalypticists predict a coming “new world order,” in which “the beast” known as the Antichrist compels satanic worship, persecutes god-fearing patriots, and subjects commerce to ungodly regulation. That this maps neatly onto the usual right-wing paranoia of “big government,” “globalists” and “liberal bias” in the culture rather gives the game away. Typically, the “mark of the beast” is thought to be a sort of cattle brand, tattoo or microchip (dovetailing with anti-vaccine conspiracy theories), somehow linked to credit or fiat money or a single global currency, obliterating economic freedom and good Christian values in one stroke. The Antichrist might be any prominent leader, from Bill Gates to Barack Obama and every liberal in between.
But what’s really going on in Revelation isn’t nearly so exhilarating. The first clue is furnished in the fact that the beast comes from the sea. The sea is a recurring theme in the gospel narrative: it’s where Jesus drowns the demon Legion in a herd of unclean pigs, and where he finds the Tyrian shekel for the temple tax. The sea beast is an old motif that’s present in mythologies around the Middle East, in which a sea dragon or serpent, representing primordial chaos, fights the god over dominion of the cosmos. The scholar Hermann Gunkel believed that this motif was present in the Creation story of an earlier, unredacted book of Genesis; it echoes throughout the Bible, in scattered hints and references, and reappears at the Bible’s end in Revelation. The point of this motif is a political theology. Just as the god conquered the sea to impose order on the universe, his people must fight their foreign adversaries to establish lawful rule. In the prophetic book of Daniel, the motif appears in a vision of four beasts rising from the sea, for the meaning of which Daniel provides a helpful, if heavy-handed, explanation: the beasts are foreign kings, or empires, who oppress the “Most High’s holy people” before the holy kingdom can be free. The author of Revelation lifts Daniel’s symbology, as well as his unsubtle commentary:
I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication…
And the angel said unto me…The seven heads [of the beast] are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings…
The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues…And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.
This vision is rich in biblical imagery, most notably “the whore,” with female promiscuity being the Bible’s favored trope to signify idolatry. Loose sex and idol worship were grounds for summary execution by the anti-miscegenation zealot Phinehas; they were also the reputation of Jezebel, the wicked queen who worshipped Baʽal, evoked here by the woman robed in the colors of royalty and whoredom. But John’s concerns are more contemporary. The “great city” on “seven mountains,” which reigns over multitudes and waters, is an unambiguous reference to Rome. John gives the beast a name but puts it in the form of a number, then tells the knowing reader they should “count.” It’s a code in Hebrew gematria, a form of numerology in which letters have numeric value. What adds up in gematria to the spooky number 666 is the name of the Roman emperor, “Nero Caesar.”
Around A.D. 60, Nero did the unforgivable. As Richard Oster has observed, the iconography of Revelation corresponds to the visual language of coins in the Roman period; it’s rather fitting, because one of the central actions of the beast concerns the infamous “mark” of his name and number—which John specifies is the means by which men “might buy or sell.” Recall that right until the revolution, the Tyrian shekel was the common silver coin in Palestine, including in the temple treasury. Fundamentalists such as Jesus and his movement may have disapproved of it, but at least it wasn’t Roman. This all changed in the 60s, when Rome debased the silver of its denarius (perhaps to pay the war debts over Armenia, or for repairs after Rome’s fire) and enhanced the Antiochene tetradrachm. Though still less pure than the shekel, the tetradrachm was re-tariffed with the same face value in denarii. With production in Tyre dwindling, it was only a matter of time before the tetradrachm drove out the shekel. Antiochene silver, stamped with the bust and name of the emperor, came pouring into Palestine. Deborah Taylor has identified this monetary reform of Nero as the background crisis of Revelation. It was the first time that the use of coinage with the image of Rome’s “beast” became an inevitability.
Aniconism wasn’t always such a problem for the Yahwist religion. The oldest currency in Palestine, under Persian rule in the fourth century B.C., featured imagery of animals and humans and even deities. Rigorous aniconism seems to have been a Hasmonean innovation. Hasmonean sensibilities continued well into the early Roman period, when despite the circulation of Tyrian shekels, local Judean mints were carefully Torahnic. The Hasmonean period also saw the start and spread of popular forms of Judean piety, marked by a heightened interest in purity among the common people. In the face of Roman innovation, reaction was assured. A spirit of revivalism swept the peasants into messianic rebellion. Sicarii radicals in Jerusalem, incited to action by Judas of Galilee, conducted terror operations against the Romans and their pawns. Prophetic movements beckoned toward national restoration. One such movement from Galilee was still grappling with postmortem grief for their fallen leader, concocting an incredible theology of his imminent return, “in great power and glory,” to establish heaven’s kingdom. These were the germs and sprouts of a revolutionary consciousness.
Tensions were already near the tipping point when Antiochene silver hit the streets of Jerusalem. The standardization of a less pure, lower-valued, imperial-branded coin was a devilish confirmation of national subjection, as well as a new means of subjection on its own. Judeans were still anxious from the crisis under Emperor Caligula, who had threatened the temple’s sanctity by trying to erect his statue there in A.D. 40. In the decades afterward, the fraught relations between Gentiles and Judeans in Palestine deteriorated, especially in the northern port-city Caesarea, where an edict from Emperor Nero stripped Judeans of their legal privileges. Disputes over ancestral claims to land and public displays of pagan worship burst into ethnic violence. In protest of the Roman procurator Florus, widely perceived as playing favorites for the Gentiles, Judeans stopped paying the tribute. To make up their arrears, Florus looted the temple treasury—the last great store of Tyrian silver—an act of economic, and religious, provocation. National anxiety reached a fever pitch. In a desperate bid for pacification, the puppet king Herod Agrippa II begged Judeans to submit to Rome and pay the tribute. To do so meant the recognition of a foreign lord as sovereign; it also meant one’s hand would bear that sovereign’s “mark,” imprinted on their coins, just as one’s head was “marked” in the head-count of the census. Those who refused such forms of “worship”—who refused to remain in Roman commerce and imperium—found themselves in open insurrection. These rebels were to be put down by force.
The tragedy of Jesus is that he came on the scene too early. His initial followers expected his spectacular return within their generation, and their expectation was almost true, for the revolution broke out a mere three decades following his death. John’s Revelation is a glimpse into the worldview of this early Jesus movement, a community which John still identifies with and as “Judeans.” To the thwarted nationalists of Judea, the conflagration of Jerusalem really was an “end of the world” of sorts. It was also one’s beginning, in that it marked the time when the Jesus movement started to distinguish themselves from their compatriots, and became what history knows today as “Christians.” But it’d be wrong to retroject that firm distinction onto the early Christ cult. To the audience and author of Revelation, the war between the Romans and “God’s holy people” was one and the same with that between the Devil and the Christ. These Christ-believers understood the spiritual implications of partaking in the Roman economic system, and made resistance to it a central plank of their theology. Near the end of Revelation, John foretells a messianic kingdom ruled by Christ along with those who resisted Roman currency. But first must come the defeat of Rome, amid “weeping and wailing” from “the merchants off the earth,” announced by a voice from heaven paraphrasing a familiar revolutionary refrain:
Render to her as she rendered to others! Pay her back double for what she has done!
The biggest problem with reconstructing the “historical Jesus” is that the source material is, by its nature, not to be taken at its word. Thomas Jefferson solved this problem by omission: he cut up the gospels, removing all talk of miracles and the divine, and pasted together his own version of the historical Jesus Christ as simply a good moralist. Likewise, a common humanist cliché has Jesus in the role of guru, a proto-hippie whose “true” message was all about love of neighbors and helping the poor. By contrast, another tradition views Jesus as an unambiguous revolutionary, a messianic liberator in the classical Judean sense of the term. The secular takes on Jesus are as varied as the religious ones, and it’s striking how each interpretation seems to match the values its proponents already believe. It’s as if everyone believes, or wishes to believe, that the real Jesus was really on their side.
There are some things of which we can be reasonably certain. In the first century A.D., a man called Jesus from Galilee was born, baptized and executed at last by imperial authorities in Palestine. His life took place against the background of an incipient revolution, around which time a number of charismatic figures claimed or were believed to be messiahs, royal pretenders who might liberate their former kingdom from oppressive Roman rule. Jesus, of course, was one of them. The followers of Jesus saw themselves in continuity with the Judean temple-state religion, at odds with temple officialdom, but accepting its basic legitimacy. From their writings, we can tell that the imminent restoration of the kingdom was the principal message that Jesus preached. We also know, from the book of Acts, that even after his untimely crucifixion for sedition, some of his closest followers still believed in a literal kingdom come. The Jesus movement in Jerusalem organized themselves into a counter-economic commune, and the community that produced the book of Revelation thought that Roman commerce was fundamentally satanic. These facts alone suggest that the “revolutionary Jesus” take is just as good as any other, and actually quite more.
That the historical Jesus might have been a Zealot or a comparable revolutionist is a fairly old idea. Most recently, Reza Aslan popularized a version of it, following in the footsteps of S.G.F. Brandon in the 1960s, and before them Hermann Reimarus in the 18th century. But it goes back even further, all the way to Christianity’s beginning. Everyone who’s been to Sunday school should know the drill: the Jews had been expecting a political messiah, to deliver them from Rome, but all they got was a spiritual redeemer, to deliver them from sin. To redefine messiahship was one way to make sense of the awkward fact of Jesus’ crucifixion; but at least some members or communities of the postmortem Jesus movement still looked forward to a liberated Judea. What believers refer to now as “the early Church” was more like an assortment of competing personalities and factions, each one coping differently with their leader’s execution. One of their main points of contention was the question of whether, or to what extent, the Jesus movement was distinct from the religion of their compatriots, and they were divided on whether Gentiles were invited in the first place. The version which won in the end was that of Paul, “apostle to the Gentiles,” a Judean Roman citizen from the hellenized diaspora who claimed to be “not under the law.” Traditionally, Paul has been understood (and was perceived in his own time) as being opposed to the law of Moses, in favor of a cosmopolitan spirituality under Christ. It’s unclear from the Bible just how deep this opposition runs, but it’s certain that Paul’s influence helped to sever “Christianity” from the tradition we know now as “Judaism.” Mosaic law, in Christianity, became less binding; Jerusalem and its temple, less essential; Judean liberation, less important. Perhaps the real kingdom of heaven was the faith we made along the way…
The hellenistic Christianity of Paul (or of his later interpreters) was well-suited for the empire. It was universalist, for one thing, and so more liable to spread, because it avoided the more onerous asks of converts to give up pork or cut their foreskins. It was also aimed at the avoidance of riling imperial feathers. Here is Paul, in his letter to the Christ cult in Rome, on the legitimacy of empire:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
On the propriety of revolt:
Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
This brand of Christianity is a far cry from the messianic nationalism raising hell in Palestine over tax-paying and silver. There is no dilemma here between Yahweh and Caesar, when they are functionally the same thing:
[I]t is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
Paul was less concerned with the physical city of Jerusalem; he identified with a “Jerusalem that is above.” This otherworldly Jerusalem, he thought, is already “free,” even if the one below remains “in slavery.” In his earlier epistles, Paul writes in breathless anticipation of the mystical parousia, the second coming of Christ, which should be here any day now…Later, the more Christ proves to be intractably unpunctual, Paul’s writings shift from the apocalyptic to the mundane, providing practical instructions for the daily lives and organization of the Christian church. His is a religion meant to endure. A chief advantage of this religion is that it might avoid stoking the ire of imperial authorities, at least compared to the revolutionists in Palestine. It was an embarrassing (and potentially incriminating) fact that the Jesus movement had been led by a tried-and-convicted enemy of the state. Much of the New Testament was written to set a distance between the Christ cult and the Judeans, and to ingratiate the former to the Romans. Thus even the gospels, in their present form, betray a weirdly sympathetic view of the Roman occupiers who killed their lord. Jesus acclaims a Roman centurion for having greater faith “than anyone in Israel,” most of whom reject him; a centurion by the cross is the first one to call Jesus the “Son of God” upon his death; even Pilate, who seals the death warrant, insists on Jesus’ innocence to the Judeans baying madly for his blood. When Pilate offers clemency to a prisoner of their choice, Judeans choose the insurrectionist Barabbas, and send Jesus to be crucified in his place. Though unbelievable on its face, the story has its uses: not simply to shift the blame for killing Christ from Rome onto Jerusalem, but to distinguish Christ from the seditions of the Jews. In the aftermath of war, this critical distance was advantageous to a messianic sect that would be naturally suspicious to authorities. It also gave Christians a cover to avoid paying the penalty of the fiscus Iudaicus levied after war. It’s a religion that could survive, or even thrive, in the otherwise hostile conditions of an empire. It’s a theology that was amenable to the imperial state religion based in Rome.
This Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, is the one who lives on in history. He outlived the other Jesus, the political Jesus, the martyred nationalist whose followers still believed in a literal kingdom come. Which Jesus was the “real” one? I think it’s too much to presume that the universalist Christ of Paul was wholly a Pauline fabrication. The ideology of Judean messianism wasn’t insular, but very much expansionist: it hoped that Israel would take her place as the successor of the world-historic empires that subdued her. Similarly, it’s not unreasonable to doubt that Jesus practiced or believed in armed revolt. Certainly the gospels have many moments that show Jesus bearing a nonviolent disposition. (Though there are other moments, too, that show the opposite.) All the same, nonviolence and universalism aren’t incompatible with resistance. Nor would it be the last time that an empire sought to kill a dissident, sanitized his message, amplified his pacifism and co-opted him for the imperial religion. One might say that Jesus was the proof of concept.
Still, it’s possible that Jesus didn’t care about the coins. It’s conceivable that this figure, hailed as the messiah by his followers, was uninterested in national liberation. It’s not unthinkable that this man, who led a fundamentalist movement to restore a conquered kingdom, was indifferent to his nation’s centuries-long struggle over monetary and fiscal independence. It may be the case that the author of Revelation got Jesus all wrong: that this messianic claimant, executed for sedition, was really acquiescent to Roman rule, that all he really cared about was dying for our sins and teaching lessons about love and paying taxes. It’s surely possible, but it would be pretty rich. It would be the richest story ever told.
New York, 2021.