First Portrait Denarius of Julius Caesar (12 July 100 BC – 15 March 44 BC)
issued in January, 44 B.C,
Silver struck coin
© Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group
Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
The chief priests and the scribes and the elders sent to Jesus some Pharisees and some Herodians to catch him out in what he said. These came and said to him, ‘Master, we know you are an honest man, that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man’s rank means nothing to you, and that you teach the way of God in all honesty. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay, yes or no?’ Seeing through their hypocrisy he said to them, ‘Why do you set this trap for me? Hand me a denarius and let me see it.’ They handed him one and he said, ‘Whose head is this? Whose name?’ ‘Caesar’s’ they told him. Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.’ This reply took them completely by surprise.
Reflection on the Roman Silver Coin
Caesar was the first Roman politician to strike coins with his own portrait during his lifetime; prior to him, it was generally regarded in Rome as an unacceptable act of political arrogance. By the time of his death in 44 B.C., silver denarii with Caesar's image were being widely used in Rome and throughout the empire. Our illustration above is exactly such a coin that Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel reading: 'Hand me a denarius and let me see it', continuing 'Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar'.
One side of the coin shows Julius Caesar wearing a laurel wreath, the reverse shows him on a chariot, to symbolise his military successes. Earlier coins before Caesar's time would also often have featured chariots, but those chariots were driven at full speed by the supreme Roman god Jupiter, who would be accompanied by a small figure of Victory at his side. Here Caesar is bold enough to replace Jupiter with a portrait of himself in a Roman draped toga, the political dress code of the time.
Although the approach of the Pharisees is superficially flattering, Jesus realised that he was being tested. Jesus was very clever, though, and set up his whole strategic argument by asking for a coin: Hand me a denarius and let me see it. At first glance, this may be because Jesus himself didn't have such a coin on him. That may have been the case. But by asking one of the chief priests to reach into his purse and produce a Roman coin, Jesus could demonstrate that the chief priest was already working with and a beneficiary of the 'earthly' Roman government, closely collaborating with them.
The majority of ancient coin (numismatic) collectors tend to center their acquisitions on Greek or Roman coins. These are by far the most widely researched and easiest to collect, as they were the parents to modern coinage of the Western world. By holding one of these coins, you are holding ancient history in your hands.
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