The historical details of the gospel stories matter. To fudge them, lose them, or distort them, changes the message of the Bible and takes away from God’s word.
New Testament teaching about the payment of tribute is such a detail. It has symbolic significance. ‘Tribute’ is not tax, but some modern translators have changed it to ‘tax’ or ‘taxes.’ Thus they have robbed us of the opportunity to understand the symbolism and, at the same time, enabled error.
What is tribute and why does it matter?
‘Tribute’ is a special levy paid by the ruler of a nation, or its people, to a foreign power. It is demanded as a sign of submission or for protection. It also sometimes refers to rent or homage paid by a vassal to his lord or sovereign. ‘Tax,’ however, is a different thing. We understand it as payment that is made to a (usually) domestic government without any element of homage; that is, it is not intended to meet any obligation of vassalage. See the primary definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary:
Tribute 1.a. A tax or impost paid by one prince or state to another in acknowledgement of submission or as the price of peace, security, and protection; rent or homage paid in money or an equivalent by a subject to his sovereign or a vassal to his lord.
Tax 1.a. A compulsory contribution to the support of government, levied on persons, property, income, commodities, transactions, etc., now at fixed rates, mostly proportional to the amount on which the contribution is levied.
Tribute presupposes subjugation or a duty of homage, and therein lies the rub.
When Jesus came to Israel, the Jews were required to pay tribute to Rome, their hated conqueror. Their fervent hope, their national hope, was that the Messiah would liberate them from this bondage. The coming Deliverer was expected to lead the restoration of Israel as a sovereign state in her promised homeland. This is classic Zionism, of course. It arises from a literal understanding certain Old Testament promises to the fathers as enduring promises of national or ethnic sovereignty (and fails to understand the enduring promise that was to the seed). The Jews believed that, as God’s chosen people, they must have their own political and geographic kingdom on this earth, this side of heaven.
Therefore the widespread hope of the Jewish people before Jesus’ first coming was for political emancipation and national sovereignty. It was wrong for them to be in a state of vassalage to a foreign power, because they were God’s people and the beneficiaries of his promises of nationhood. Political subjugation must end; tribute must end. This, they believed, was the substance of God’s promises to Israel.
And so the Jews did not want to hear from the Messiah that they should pay tribute to Rome. In fact, to say such a thing could land a man in trouble. It was traitorous, it was unpatriotic, it was unJewish; it was unlawful under Mosaic law and in light of the divine promises to Israel. The evil Pharisees and Sadducees tried to ensnare Jesus on this issue, as we learn from Matthew 22:15-21:
The Pharisees went and took counsel, how they might tangle him in his words. And they sent to him their disciples with Herod’s servants, saying, Master, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truly, neither mind any person, for you do not consider men’s estate. Tell us therefore what you think: is it lawful to remit tribute to Caesar, or not?
Jesus perceived their wickedness and said, Why do you bait me, you hypocrites? Let me see the tribute coin. So they brought him a denarius. And he said to them, Whose image and superscription is this? They said to him, Caesar’s. Then he said to them, Give therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.
The religious leaders hoped to trick Jesus into saying things that would earn him the wrath of the Jews or of the Romans. But he avoided the trap, and, by confirming that tribute was due to Caesar, showed that he was no Zionist. For the kingdom he came to inaugurate has nothing to do with worldly liberation, but spiritual; it is not of this world. This is the New Covenant, the promise of deliverance from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God and the life that is in Christ. Its citizens are the Jews that are “hid within,” the Israel of God. And so Jesus refuted Zionism.
In short, he is the conqueror, and he has won for us an everlasting kingdom. It is to him that we owe the homage that is of real consequence. He told us to pay tribute to Caesar, and so we do, knowing that we are pilgrims in a strange country. Our citizenship is in heaven, and we are looking for our heavenly country, whose maker and founder is God.
But such lessons cannot be built on the passage when the translators change ‘tribute’ to ‘tax.’ To do this takes away from the foundation a brick that enables us to understand the nature of the New Covenant. If I may mix metaphors, it then becomes easier to build straw upon the weakened foundation. Modern straw is that Jesus wants us to pay taxes and be good citizens. Yes, but no. And, more significantly, moderns have rebuilt the straw house of Zionism. They have fallen into errors that the English Reformers called “Jewish opinions” and “Jewish fables,” seeking an earthly kingdom for the citizens of the earthly Israel. These errors obviously become easier to fall into, and more difficult to refute, when the Scriptures that refute them are changed.
There are three Greek words translated ‘tribute’ by Tyndale (and also in the KJV) that have been variously translated by moderns. Strong, in his Concordance, certainly raises issues with his definitions. However, I have no doubt that the Greek was used idiomatically in these passages to refer to tribute payments, and Tyndale knew and understood this.
Other Bible passages that teach about tribute and the Lord’s kingdom
That the payment of tribute or suchlike is not a concern of the Israel that belongs to God (whether Jew or Gentile) is reiterated in other passages. The question of the lawfulness of tribute arises in Mark 12:14 and Luke 23:2. Jesus also used the issue to teach about the freedom of God’s people at Matthew 17:24-27:
And when they had come to Capernaum, men that collected the poll money came to Peter and asked, Does your teacher pay tribute? He said, Yes. And when he had come into the house, Jesus spoke first to him, saying, What do you think, Simon: from whom do the kings of the earth take tribute or poll money? From their children, or from others? Peter answered, From others. And Jesus said to him, Then the children are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea and cast in your hook, and take the fish that first comes up. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a coin. Take it, and pay for me and you.
We may learn from this that the children of the Lord’s kingdom are free, even though they should pay tribute to Rome. Theirs is another kingdom, and theirs is another king, one who is not “of the earth.” (But some moderns have changed ‘tribute’ to ‘temple-tax’ here, which to my mind confounds the message even further, the temple being as much beloved by the Jews as Rome was hated.)
The apostle Paul also taught that tribute should be paid to Rome at Romans 13:7:
Give to all persons therefore that which is due to them: tribute to whom tribute belongs, custom to whom custom is due, fear to whom fear belongs, honour to whom honour pertains. Owe nothing to anyone, but to love one another. For he who loves another, fulfils the law.
Pay your earthly dues, says Paul, be they tax (‘custom’) or tribute, but, moreover, concern yourself with the dues of the everlasting kingdom, whose currency is love. We may pay homage to Caesar or to any earthly lord without murmuring, understanding that all power and all authority is ordained by God. We know also that what ultimately matters is the homage due to God, and this we may pay in our hearts anytime, anywhere, freely. For our Zion is a spiritual mount.
©Ruth Magnusson Davis, Baruch House Publishing
A longer (4 page, still short!) version of this paper, with references and also a discussion of how modern Bibles changed Revelation 10:6 to support premillennialism, is here: Tribute Is Not Tax: Scripture Changes, Doctrine Changes
Needless to say, the October Testament (the New Testament of the New Matthew Bible) kept the word ‘tribute.’ We did not change it. Purchase the only ‘modern’ New Testament that is not: The October Testament: The New Testament of the New Matthew Bible
Please note, the author is not anti-Semitic. Politically, she is pro-Israel. She simply believes that in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile, but all are as one. She also does not dismiss the possibility that there will be an influx of Jews into the kingdom of Christ at the end of the age. It is possible, but does not change anything written here.
Scripture quotations are from the October Testament, 2018 edition.