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Taxes, and the teaching of Jesus

Taxes, and the teaching of Jesus

Journal of Institutional studies, , Vol. 6 (no. 2),
p. 43-57

Despite sporadic claims to the contrary, no single economic teaching can assert doctrinal status within Christianity in its historical evolution. This pluralism of Christian theology is rooted in differing economic perspectives of Jesus; he developed distinct attitudes in relation to the environments he confronted. Those environments and perspectives are recoverable by attending both to the social archaeology of Jesus’ period and place and to the sources (oral at the outset) that fed into the emergence of the written Gospels.
Nazareth engaged in a hybrid economy involving both traditional exchange and collective trade. In that environment, Jesus portrayed the kingdom of God in terms of wealth. The source known as “Q” reflects this background, and Jesus’ perspective involves the enjoyment of what only trade can produce but means of what only the local economy of exchange can distribute and consume. The communal meal typified Jesus’ activity at this stage.
But the source called “Q” also reflects Jesus’ period in Capernaum, where he attacked the tendency of economies based on currency to produce or exacerbate poverty. Jesus’ response is not only to speak of consolation of the poor, but also to urge his followers to become poor voluntarily in the interests of those in want. This is the root of the commutarian community of disciples in Jerusalem shortly after the resurrection. The principal source for this perspective was the apostle Peter.
Opponents who wished to portray Jesus as a rebel against Rome pressed the specific issue of taxation in argument with him in Jerusalem. But Jesus’ response is not to compromise. His teaching to render what is Caesar’s to Caesar and what is God’s to God has been misunderstood as a prevarication. The teaching about what is God’s and what is Caesar’s assumes that, just as the Roman coin bears the image of the empire, so God’s kingdom makes itself evident with its own stamp. Understanding that Caesar’s power is limited to what Caesar can do - mint coins in this case - sets the boundary of political authority in comparison with humanity’s fundamental connection to God.
Jesus’ position explains why, for him, the right question about taxing is not who should pay, but - what should be taxed? And the answer is: mammon, a term whose meaning is consistent with its Aramaic background, as indicating a bribe.
Although Jesus cannot reasonably be understood to have held any economic theory, his principles regarding money and its limits suggest that policies of taxation in most developed contrives are invasive. If money is taxed instead of people, and the issue of profit (whose definition has become increasingly inscrutable) is set aside, then a flat tax on transactions of all kinds appears far more just. The fact that technology offers the prospect of effecting such a tax offers the prospect of a containment of one of the worst aspects of globalization and a just theory of taxation.


Keywords: Capernaum; imago Dei; Jerusalem; Jesus; Gospel sources; John Milton; Nazareth; social archaeology of first century Palestine; tax policy

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