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No Tribute Penny?

James S. Wilk, M.D.

Most of us are familiar with the account of the "Tribute Penny" in the canonical gospels.[1]  The story appears in Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20: 21-26.  The term "Tribute Penny" comes from the Authorized, or "King James," Version of the account.  In this particular translation, some learned men come to Jesus and ask him, "Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?" (Mark 12:14) and as part of his answer he requests, "bring me a penny[2], that I may see it" (Mark 12:15).  The gospels' original Greek actually uses the term, "denarius."  The translators of the King James Version chose to render "denarius" as "penny" because at that time the English penny was a silver coin of similar diameter to a denarius.

Because the term in the synoptic gospels is "denarius," the denarii of Tiberius, RIC I 26, 28 and 30, have been known in numismatic circles for well over a century as "Tribute Pennies" (Figure 1).  However, a recent survey[3] of coin finds in Jerusalem demonstrates that very few Roman Imperial coins actually circulated there during Jesus' lifetime.  The authors of RPC state that Roman denarii were neither made nor circulated in Syria. Rather, the principal silver currencies of Syria, of which Judaea was a part, were tetradrachms of Antioch and shekels of Tyre.[4]  In recent years, the argument has been made that the tetradrachm of Antioch with Tiberius on the obverse and Augustus on the reverse (RPC 4161)[5] or the denarius of Augustus with the two grandsons reverse (RIC I 207)[6] is the real "Tribute Penny."  Other candidates have included coins of Caius Caesar, Germanicus, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.[7]  Thus one coin or another has been known in numismatic circles for well over a century as the "Tribute Penny."

Despite the fact that this pericope appears in all three of the synoptic gospels,[8] these accounts are not independent from one another.  Almost all modern biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first of the gospels to be written, and that Matthew and Luke each independently incorporated Mark's account into their respective gospels (the Two Source hypothesis).  A very small minority of scholars believe that Matthew was written first, and then used by Luke and Mark in creating their gospels (the Griesbach hypothesis).  In any event, this means that the story of the "Tribute Penny" is not multiply attested by the canonical gospels.  It really only stems from a single source, Mark (or possibly Matthew).

Yet outside the canon, similar stories appear in the Gospel of Thomas 100:1-4 and in the Egerton Gospel 3:1-6.  These sources call into doubt whether the identity of the coin known as the "Tribute Penny" can actually be known, even in principle.  Let us compare the three accounts.

Mark 12:13-17 (New American Standard Version)[9]

           And they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him, in order to trap Him in a statement.  And they came and said to Him, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?  Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?"


          But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at."   And they brought one. And He said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"


          And they said to Him, "Caesar's."


          And Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him.

Thomas 100:1-4 (Translated by Bruce Metzger)[10]

            They showed Jesus a gold (coin) and said to him:  Caesar's agents demand taxes from us. 


            He said to them:  Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God, and give to me what is mine.

Egerton Gospel 3:1-6 (Scholar's Version)[11]

           They come to him and interrogate him as a way of putting him to the test.  They ask, "Teacher, Jesus, we know that you are [from God], since the things you do put you above all the prophets.  Tell us, then, is it permissible to pay to rulers what is due them?  Should we pay them or not?" 


            Jesus knew what they were up to and became indignant.  Then he said to them, "Why do you  pay me lip service as a teacher, but not [do] what I say?  How accurately Isaiah prophesied about you when he said,'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart stays far away from me; their worship of me is empty, [because they insist on teachings that are human] commandments [. . .]'"

The Gospel of Thomas and the Egerton Gospel differ in one way critical for numismatists:  in Thomas, the coin in question is a gold coin, and in the Egerton Gospel, no coin is even mentioned.  What then, is the historian to make of these traditions?  One way is to look at the features of the event which are multiply independently attested.  A saying or event mentioned in several sources is older than any of those sources, and thus more likely to be historically accurate than an account or quotation noted in only a single source.  This is not to say that something found in only one source cannot be historically accurate, but that without corroborating evidence in other sources, there is no way to know whether the account has been distorted or even been entirely made up.

Features of the story that are multiply attested

Some people, in an effort to trip Jesus up, complement him about his knowledge of religion and ethics and then ask him whether or not it is permitted to pay taxes to rulers (Mark, Egerton Gospel).


Jesus knows why his interlocutors are asking him this (Mark, Egerton Gospel).


Someone in the story uses a coin to illustrate his point (Mark, Thomas).


Jesus replies, "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God" (Mark, Thomas).

Features of the story that are only singly attested

Jesus' interlocutors are identified as some of the Pharisees and Herodians (Mark).


Some people point out to Jesus that they are expected to pay taxes to Caesar (Thomas).


To illustrate their point, some people show Jesus a gold coin (Thomas).


To illustrate his point, Jesus asks for a denarius and he asks them about the obverse of the coin, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" (Mark).


In addition to advising them to give Caesar and God each their due, he also says, "Give to me what is mine" (Thomas).


The interlocutors are amazed (Mark).


Jesus became indignant, rebukes them for only paying lip service to him as a teacher and then quotes Isaiah 29:13 (Egerton Gospel).

Another important criterion for the historian is the issue of contextual credibility.  In terms of historical Jesus research, any report of Jesus' sayings and deeds must be plausibly situated in the historical context of first-century Palestine to be trusted as reliable.  Only sayings and parables that can be traced back to the oral period, 30-50 C.E., can possibly have originated with Jesus.

Features of the story that are not contextually credible

It is not contextually credible that Jesus would have had a run in of this type with the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were not in power at the time, and there is exceedingly little evidence that they were even a force in Galilee during the ministry of Jesus.[12]  Beyond this, many of the situations over which Jesus and the Pharisees clash in the gospels would not have presented religious problems for the Pharisees of Jesus' time.[13]  As a general rule, the conflicts portrayed in the gospels between Pharisees and Jesus are actually a reflection of conflict between the early Christian church and non-Christian Jews that arose in the generations after Jesus' death, and not between the historical Jesus and the religious leaders of his day.[14]  The stated motives of his interlocutors to "trap Him in a statement" or to "interrogate him as a way of putting him to the test" as well as Jesus' own indignation must therefore be viewed with more than a little skepticism.


It is unlikely, but certainly not inconceivable, that somebody would hand over a silver coin of considerable value upon the request of an itinerant preacher with whom he was unacquainted, lest the coin be stolen.


When one keeps the features of the story that are multiply attested, and casts out those features of the story which are not credible in the context of early first century Galilean Judaism, we are not left with much.  Some people asked if it was permitted to pay taxes to rulers.  Jesus then replied, "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."  That is all we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty.  Other features of the story may preserve a few details of the event.  Perhaps whoever approached him thought they were more clever than Jesus and wanted to trap him in an inconsistency.  Possibly someone--either Jesus or one of his interlocutors--held up a coin as an illustration.  At any rate, it is not possible to establish that the historical Jesus even used a tribute penny to illustrate his opinions about the ethics of taxation, so it is a moot point which particular coin it might have been.

[1] The ones in the New Testament canon (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

[2] The emphases here are mine.

[3] Ariel, D.T., A Survey of Coin Finds in Jerusalem, Liber Annuus 32, 1982, pp 273-326.

[4] Burnett, A., Amandry, M., Ripolles, P., Roman Provincial Coinage, (British Museum Press and Bibliotheque Nationale, London and Paris, Volume I, 1992), p. 12.

[5] Lewis, P.E., "The Actual Tribute Penny," JNAA, Volume 10, 1999. 

[6] Shore, H., "The Real Tribute Penny," Australian Coin Review, 377, Dec. 1995, p 34.  This was reprinted in the Jan. 1996 issue of The Celator.

[7] Marotta, M. "Six Caesars Of The Tribute Penny" at http://www.coin-newbies.com/articles/caesars.html, accessed Feb. 1, 2004.

[8] The term comes from the Greek sunoptiko? (synoptikos), which means "seeing together" or "having a common view of."  As used by biblical scholars, it refers to Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are similar in form, outline and contents.

[9] Lockman Foundation.  New American Standard Bible.  (La Habra, California:  The LOCKMAN Foundation, 1988). Used by permission.

[10] In Aland, K (ed.).  Synopsis quattuor evangeliorum: locus parallelis evangeliorum apocryphorum et patrum adhibitis, Thirteen revised edition.  (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1985).

[11] In Miller, R.J., (ed.).  The complete gospels:  Annotated scholars version.  (San Francisco, California:  Harper Collins, 1994).

[12] Shorto, R.  Gospel truth:  The new image of Jesus emerging from science and history, and why it matters.  (New York, New York:  Riverhead Books, 1997), p. 58.

[13] See Fredriksen, P., From Jesus to Christ. (New York: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 105 and Vermes, G. Jesus the Jew. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), p. 67.

[14] Wells, G.A., The Jesus myth. (Peru, Illinois:  Open Court, 1999), p. 22 and Mitchell, S., The gospel according to Jesus:  A new translation and guide to his essential teachings for believers and unbelievers.  (New York, New York:  HarperPerennial, 1993) p. 18.

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