Matthew 22:15–22

Render Unto Caesar

Commentaries by Christopher J. Nygren

Works of art by Peter Paul Rubens, Titian and Unknown artist, France

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Unknown artist, France

Silver Denarius, Head of Tiberius (obverse), seated female figure (reverse), 14–37 CE, Silver, 3.76 g, The British Museum, London; Donated by Count John Francis William de Salis, R.6195, British Museum/London/Great Britain / Art Resource, NY

Whose Likeness is This?

Commentary by Christopher J. Nygren

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This coin was minted in the Roman town of Lugdunum (now Lyon, France), sometime during the reign of Tiberius (14–37 CE). The silver denarius was one of the most common forms of imperial currency used during the time of the Roman Empire. Coins like this were struck by hand. Craftsmen at mints strategically disseminated throughout the Mediterranean basin would produce moulds, known as dies, for the coins. They would then insert a blank piece of metal into the die, and when this die was struck with a decisive hammer blow an impression would be transferred onto the coin. Typically, Roman coins carried a likeness of the emperor on the obverse and an image of some important deity or allegorical figure on the reverse. Coins also indicated the mint at which it had been struck, which allows modern scholars to link this coin to the mint at Lugdunum.

A coin of this sort, though certainly not this example, was handed to Christ when he asked to see the coin used to pay taxes. Occasionally, Roman mints would produce versions of the denarius using gold, which was much more valuable. Indeed, the Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal text that was excluded from the Bible by Church councils in late antiquity, specifies that ‘[t]hey showed Jesus a gold coin’ (Gospel of Thomas 100:1–4).

Regardless of the metal out of which the coin was made, Christ’s point seems clear: the coin was struck at the behest of the emperor, and therefore was the rightful property of the Roman Empire. Christ’s followers could easily pay their imperial taxes without violating either the spirit or the letter of his teachings. What matters more than the coin, Christ suggests, is the internal disposition of his followers. 



Bland, Roger. 1992. The Chalfont Hoard and Other Roman Coin Hoards (London: British Museum Press), no. 193, p. 30

Sutherland, C.H.V. 2018. Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 1, From 31 BC to 69 AD (London: Spink & Son), no. 30, p. 95

Peter Paul Rubens

The Tribute Money, c.1612, Oil on panel, 144.1 x 189.9 cm, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Museum purchase, M.H. de Young Art Trust Fund, 44.11, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Things Above

Commentary by Christopher J. Nygren

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Christ, in this painting by Peter Paul Rubens, is surrounded by a group of scholars and church elders who are distinguished by their refined garments. He stands apart from these eight men: while they hunch forward hoping to catch a glimpse of the coin in question, he stands straight at the right edge of the composition bathed in light with a subtle halo.

There can be little doubt about the message that Christ seeks to convey: he is not asking whose image and inscription on are on the coin. That moment has passed and the answer has been given: Caesar’s. In the silent art of painting, the ethical and spiritual valence of Christ’s response is clearly conveyed through the language of gesture: Christ’s raised finger emphatically directs attention to things of greater importance. Christ’s gesture seems to insist, ‘Don’t focus on the coin!’

Following a long-standing tradition in anti-Semitic iconography, Rubens presents these rabbinical scholars as unable to overcome their earthly attachments. Some of the figures lean in to examine the coin, invidiously, while others exchange shifting glances with other spectators whose presence we intuit just beyond the picture frame. However, Rubens holds out hope of conversion.

The figure in blue who receives the coin from Christ distinguishes himself from his companions by the way that his bodily posture conveys his response to Christ’s words. While his companions all gaze on things at or below their natural line of sight, this figure raises his glance upwards. His eyes don’t seem to meet Christ’s gaze so much as follow Christ’s pointing finger to the heavens; the man’s brow is raised suggesting recognition and spiritual illumination. He has understood Christ’s message, which is not about Roman taxation and rule but recognizing God’s dominion.

Rubens presents this figure as a model for the beholder, who is similarly given the task of moving beyond issues of fiscal policy to the spiritual significance of this biblical narrative.



Preimesberger, Rudolf. 2004. ‘"[...] und es sahe der achtsame Mann, das Angesicht des Gottes genau": Ein Augenzeuge namens Lentulus in van Dycks "Zinsgroschen"?’, in Geschichte und Ästhetik: Festschrift für Werner Busch zum 60. Geburtstag, ed. Margit Kern, Thomas Kirchner, and Hubertus Kohle (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag), pp. 68–88


The Tribute Money, c.1516, Oil on panel, 75 x 56 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden; 169, bpk Bildagentur / Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut / Art Resource, NY

Coining Virtue

Commentary by Christopher J. Nygren

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Titian’s painting was the first independent painted illustration of this biblical story—in other words, it was not part of a larger cycle. It is surprising that it took artists one and a half millennia to tackle this subject in this way. In all likelihood, Titian did not choose the subject; rather, the painting’s function determined its iconography.

The picture was to be used as the cover for a collection of ancient coins owned by one of the most prominent dukes of Renaissance Italy, Alfonso I d’Este of Ferrara. Titian’s picture turns upon an image-based idea of spiritual reformation found in a pre-modern exegetical tradition flowing uninterrupted from Tertullian (c.160–c.220 CE) to Erasmus (1466–1536). This tradition emphasized that the currency at stake in Christ’s words is the human soul rather than gold coins. Taking up such ideas, Titian’s painting cleverly uses the biblical episode to highlight the intersection of theology, philosophy, and archaeology by physically overlaying the narrative onto the Renaissance practice of numismatic collecting.

This was not simply an archaeological pastime; it was a mode of ethical cultivation. When a Renaissance prince gazed upon a coin depicting an ancient ruler, he was not only supposed to identify that ruler, but also to identify with him by imitating his virtues. The vices of wicked rulers could also be learned from as negative exempla. In holding before his gaze the great deeds of the Caesars, Alfonso’s coins offered examples against which he could measure himself and gauge whether or not he was fulfilling his obligation towards that virtuous tradition. Ancient coins served as a physical support for ethical numismatics. They were a mode of actualizing the conceptual work of the mirror of the prince (speculum principis)—an age-old literary genre that saw a revival in the Renaissance (Castiglione 2002; Erasmus 1997).

Capitalizing on Jesus’s use of the coin as a metaphor for the soul, Titian offered a cunning visual commentary that underscored the nexus between two modes of ethical cultivation: meditation upon Christ’s injunction to examine the coin/soul impressed with divine resemblance blurs with the numismatist’s examination of ancient exemplars and the likenesses they had stamped on ancient coins. The picture thus transforms a simple numismatic collection into the material support for the serious work of ethical and spiritual reformation.



Castiglione, Baldassare. 2002. The Book of the Courtier, ed. by Daniel Javitch (Norton: New York)

Erasmus, Desiderius. 1997. The Education of a Christian Prince with the Panegyric for Archduke Philip of Austria, ed. and trans. by Lisa Jardine. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)

Nygren, Christopher J. 2016. ‘Titian’s Christ and the Coin: Recovering the Spiritual Currency of Numismatism in Renaissance Ferrara’, Renaissance Quarterly, 69.2: 449–88

Unknown artist, France :

Silver Denarius, Head of Tiberius (obverse), seated female figure (reverse), 14–37 CE , Silver

Peter Paul Rubens :

The Tribute Money, c.1612 , Oil on panel

Titian :

The Tribute Money, c.1516 , Oil on panel

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid!

Comparative commentary by Christopher J. Nygren

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When asked whether or not Jews should pay taxes to Rome, Christ pithily responded: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’. Modern exegetes have often turned to this story from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 22:15–22; Mark 12:13–17; Luke 20:19–25) as a means of confronting the relationship between Church and State and questioning where Christians’ allegiance should lie. By contrast, artistic representations of the narrative seem to follow the pre-modern exegetical tradition by focusing attention on the second half of Christ’s response: ‘Render to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21).

Christ’s teachings on taxes must be considered holistically. Elsewhere in the Gospels (Matthew 17:23–26), Christ submitted to the so-called ‘Temple Tax’ (Greek didrachma, a Jewish tax) by miraculously providing a coin from the mouth of a fish. The tax at issue in Matthew 22 is of a different nature. Two groups of Jewish authorities, the Pharisees and the Herodians, disagreed about whether Jews should submit to Roman tax policies and confronted Jesus with the question hoping that his answer would violate their reading of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus caught both sides unaware when he asked to see the coin with which the tax was paid and then redirected their inquisition with a simple question of his own: ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’. This simple question realigned the entire encounter.

For early Christian exegetes, the literal details of Roman fiscal policy were of limited interest; they seem to have accepted that Christians must pay tax (see Romans 13:7). So, they searched for a 'deeper' (often allegorical) significance in this text. Origen's (c.185–c.255 CE) comments to this effect can be taken as representative: ‘Who among us disagrees about paying taxes to Caesar? So, the passage has a mystical and secret meaning’ (Homilies on Luke 39).

He used the Pauline Epistles to reveal that the ‘coin’ at the centre of the ‘Render’ pericope stands in as a metaphor for the human soul:

As we bear the image of the earthly man, we should also bear the image of the heavenly man’ (1 Corinthians 15:49). When Christ says, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’, he means this: ‘Put off the person of the earthly man, cast off the earthly image, so that you can put on yourselves the person of the heavenly man and give to God what is God’s. (Homilies on Luke 39)

That ‘secret meaning’ was revealed by another patristic commentator: Tertullian (c.160–c.220 CE).

What will be ‘the things that are God’s?’ Such things as are like Caesar’s denarius—that is to say, His image and similitude. That, therefore, which he commands to be ‘rendered unto God’, the Creator, is man, who has been stamped with His image, likeness, name, and substance. (Against Marcion 4.38)

Tertullian’s reading implies a connection between the Gospel and Genesis 1:26–27. In that foundational passage of Christian image theory, humankind was described as having been made in the image and likeness of God. With this intertext in mind, Tertullian interprets the episode metaphorically: just as the coin bears the mark of its proprietor, Caesar, so too does the human soul bear the indelible imprint of its creator, God the Father. Humankind must render that unto God.

A few centuries later, Augustine made the connection between the tax debates of the Synoptic Gospels and the impression of the prelapsarian soul even more explicit when he noted that:

We are God’s money: we have wandered away as coin from the treasury. The impression that was stamped upon us has been rubbed out by our wandering…. He is himself asking for His money, as Caesar for his. Therefore, He says, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’: to Caesar his money, to God yourselves. (Tractates on John 40.9)

In modern times, it has become popular to suggest that Christ’s dictum marks a stark division between the competing authorities of Church and State. The pre-modern exegetical tradition, by contrast, makes two points clear: first, Matthew 22:21 was not understood as a straightforward or didactic story regarding tax policy, but rather was taken as a personal invitation to spiritual reformation; second, Christ’s invitation to reform establishes a metaphorical equation between Caesar’s coin and the human soul. Examining the coin-soul is to be understood as a form of spiritual exercise that entails scrutinizing the coin-soul with the scope of restoring it to its original condition.

Visualizations of this Gospel scene often hew closer to the early interpretations of the text than to modern exegesis. Even as the paintings by Titian and Rubens spin out the narrative in different ways, each redirects the beholder to things of greater importance than the coin, just as the original biblical text had done.



Holmes, Peter (trans.). 1868. Tertullian: Against Marcion, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), p.339

Innes, James (trans.). 1874. Augustine: Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel According to St John, vol. 2, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), p.27

Lienhard, Joseph T. (trans.). 1996. Origin: Homilies on Luke and Fragments on Luke, Fathers of the Church, vol. 94 (Washington: Catholic University of America Press), pp.161–62

Luz, Ulrich. 2005. Matthew 21–28: A Commentary, Hermeneia, trans. by James E. Crouch (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), pp.61–67


Next exhibition: Matthew 23:37-39

Matthew 22:15–22

Revised Standard Version

15 Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk. 16And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Heroʹdi-ans, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin. 20And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.