Paying taxes to Caesar
The Gospel of Thomas is preserved to us in both Greek (only partially, from fragments discovered at Oxyrhynchus) and Coptic (from Codex II of the Nag Hammadi collection). It was originally labelled a “Gnostic” text, but more recent scholarship eschews this label on the grounds that it stems from the pejorative accounts of Christian heresiographers, and has proved to be insufficiently defined in subsequent scholarship (for the classic case against “Gnosticism” see Michael Williams, Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’). Most, therefore, now tend to speak of the Gospel of Thomas simply as a Christian document. Despite titling itself as a “gospel,” the text bears little similarity in format to the canonical books of the same name. There is no real interest in narrating the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Instead, we have a series of 114 sayings, or logia, of Jesus, many of which are familiar from the Synoptic Gospels. There is a clear ascetic outlook in the document, and the most compelling argument for the intended audience of the text in its present form is that it was intended for ascetically inclined Christians of Syria, probably a “loosely structured movement” (Stephen Patterson, Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, p. 151) rather than a highly organised community.
This saying offers a version of what was clearly a popular dialogue. In addition to those in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 12:13-17; Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26), we also find parallels in texts such as Papyrus Egerton 2, fragment 2 (recto), the Excerpts of Theodotus 86, and the Sentences of Sextus 20. All seem to agree on the general thrust – that powers (earthly and divine) are entitled to what rightly belongs to them. The Jesus of Matthew, for instance, states that taxes should be “given back” to Caesar, the implication being that this is simply what the government is due for services rendered (see Matthew 22:21). In the present saying from the Gospel of Thomas, the narrative which surrounds the Synoptic accounts is suppressed, in keeping with the format of the text as a whole. The New Testament versions of this story have Jesus’s Pharisaic and Herodian opponents bringing him a denarius to try and trick him into saying something controversial regarding payment of Roman tax, and Jesus subsequently deriding them for their hypocrisy, demanding to see the image of Caesar on the coin. The Gospel of Thomas simply states that “they” (most likely the disciples or other listeners to Jesus; see Simon Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas, p. 562-563) brought Jesus a coin. There is no mention of intended trickery, an image of Caesar, or even a question about whether it is permissible to pay the taxes that are demanded – this is merely implied. It is strange that we have here a gold coin, rather than a denarius (normally translated into Coptic as sateere). For Stephan Witetschek, this indicates that the saying was only incorporated very late, in Egypt, after the Diocletianic reform of 305 CE (“Ein Goldstück für Caesar?” p. 122). However, it might simply be owing to a meaningless variation in translation, or the compiler’s intention to make the story more parabolic (see Uwe-Karsten Plisch, The Gospel of Thomas, p. 219).
Mark Goodacre argues that this saying provides an example of what he calls the “missing middle” phenomenon, where the Gospel of Thomas often lacks the middle part of a story narrated by the Synoptics (Thomas and the Gospels, p. 112; Thomas and the Synoptics, p. 112-115). In this case, the omission of the section where Jesus is shown the image of Caesar on the coin is for Goodacre a clear sign of a redactor who has clumsily abbreviated the story without thought for the fact that without Jesus being shown Caesar’s image, the entire episode loses its force. However, the Gospel of Thomas is a sayings collection, rather than an extensive narrative, and it seems that such instances might actually show what the compiler viewed to be the most important elements of familiar pericopes for his own purposes (regardless of whether one believes these to have come from direct knowledge of the Synoptics or other source material). Arguably, the compiler of the Gospel of Thomas, whose overall agenda is the abandonment of earthly ties, and gaining the spiritual “knowledge” (“gnosis”) which Jesus offers,cared little for questions relating to living under Roman occupation. These were problems associated with the material world, and should not be at the centre of one’s concern. While the Jesus of the New Testament makes clear that Caesar is entitled to what is his, as long as ultimate focus always remains on God, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas cares less about the demands made by Caesar (he doesn’t discuss the coin), and cares even more than the Synoptic Jesus about where one’s spiritual focus should lie. This is expressed through the additional demand that one not only give to Caesar and God what is rightfully theirs, but also that Jesus himself receives what is rightfully his.
Gathercole highlights agreement between the Gospel of Thomas and Luke against the Markan and Matthean accounts, which he suggests might confirm that the former had knowledge of the Lukan version of this pericope. Namely, the term for “tax” (shōm) is general, as is Luke’s “φόρος” (in contrast to the more specific “poll-tax,” “κῆνσος,” of Mark and Matthew) (“Luke in the Gospel of Thomas,” p. 135; see also Arai, “Caesar’s, God’s and Mine,” p. 46). For the reasons discussed above, however, the compiler of the Gospel of Thomas is likely not concerned with the specifics of taxation, and so a more general term is perfectly sufficient. Another question raised by this saying is whether the compiler intends for Caesar, God, and Jesus to be read in ascending authority, where Jesus is above even God. Unlike in many other texts traditionally labelled as “Gnostic,” however, there is nothing really in the Gospel of Thomas which suggests a belief in an inferior demiurgical creator God, and so it seems unlikely that a tripartite authority chain is intended here. Most logical is the suggestion of Gathercole, who notes that the insignificance of money shown elsewhere in the text (e.g. sayings 36 and 95, which teach that property such as clothing is something of indifference, and money should be given away) imply that giving tax to Caesar is completely inconsequential, as concern should really be on obedience to God, the Father (saying 99) which is achieved through appropriate response to Jesus’s teachings (The Gospel of Thomas, p. 562). The roughly contemporaneous Sentences of Sextus 18, which also displays ascetical leanings, teaches in its version of the pericope that the sage who has no property is “like God.” April DeConick, The Original Gospel of Thomas, p. 275, also argues that Jesus is tacked onto the list which formally only included Caesar and God because of the so-called “Thomasine community’s” exceptional reverence for Jesus himself.
There is no clearly apparent negativity towards Caesar in this saying. Gathercole posits that because saying 78 views “kings and nobles” negatively for wearing fine garments (i.e. submitting to materialism), then the present saying may also imply contempt for the emperor, who is purely associated with physical wealth (The Gospel of Thomas, p. 564). However, this seems to read too much into the saying. Granted, the Gospel of Thomas can be understood to see the empire and the money which belongs to it as part of the material world, which distracts the believer from what is important, but specific polemic against the emperor is not the intention here. Caesar is merely a tool, picked up from a popular existing tradition, by which to express the need to give Jesus and his soteriological message the devotion they require.