To follow up on my previous review of Christian scholar Craig Keener’s “Otho: A Targeted Comparison” in Biographies and Jesus, I’d like to briefly discuss the relevance of numismatic evidence in evaluating Suetonius’ Life of Otho in comparison to the NT Gospels.
Numismatics is the study of ancient currency, and is particularly relevant to the study of Roman emperors, since the rulers of the Roman Empire would stamp their faces on the currency in circulation throughout the Mediterranean. A number of years ago I took a seminar on Roman numismatics with professor Edward Watts at UC San Diego, in which I did a research project on the emperor Otho and the currency he circulated with his image during his short reign. It is also relevant to another seminar that I took with professor Michele Salzman at UC Riverside in which I did a research project related to the depiction of Roman taxation in the Gospel of Matthew. My research in both seminars is relevant to evaluating Keener’s argument that Suetonius’ historical reliability can be compared to that of the NT Gospels.
Numismatics is a useful piece of data for assessing historical reliability, since ancient coins furnish archaeological evidence that we can use to corroborate (or contradict) ancient narratives. The historical claim of Suetonius in question, which is relevant to numismatics, is a peculiar of detail of Otho that he discusses about his hair (12.1):
“He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head, that no one suspected it.”
So the emperor Otho apparently had the custom of wearing a wig. Is there any way that we could corroborate this detail that Suetonius gives with archaeological evidence? Well actually there is. During my seminar with Watts, I gave a presentation on some Roman denarii minted during his reign, and one of the things that Watts pointed out during my presentation is that the coins actually depict Otho wearing a wig. If you take a close look at the denarius below, you may notice that there is something funny about his hair:
And so, outside material remains confirm that Suetonius had gotten this detail of Otho correct in his biography. We can also use numismatics to corroborate other information Suetonius gives about the Roman emperors, such as another detail about the emperor Galba. In his Life of Galba (5.2), Suetonius claims that the emperor Galba had a special connection with Augustus’ wife Livia, writing:
“He showed marked respect to Livia Augusta, to whose favour he owed great influence during her lifetime and by whose last will he almost became a rich man; for he had the largest bequest among her legatees, one of fifty million sesterces. But because the sum was designated in figures and not written out in words, Tiberius, who was her heir, reduced the bequest to five hundred thousand, and Galba never received even that amount.”
Once more numismatic evidence comes to our aid in corroborating this detail, since it turns out that, when Galba first became emperor, he actually minted coins that depict Livia Augusta on the reverse. Below is another Roman denarius that depicts both Galba and Livia together:
The connection that Galba drew with the house of Augustus and the empress Livia was a special part of his propaganda when he first became emperor, which is discussed by scholar Colin Kraay in The Coinage of Vindex and Gaiba A.D. 68, and the Continuity of the Augustan Principate.
And so, when it comes to his anecdotes about these Roman emperors, what the evidence of ancient currency bears out is that Suetonius tends to know what he is talking about. Can such numismatic evidence be used to evaluate the depiction of events found in the NT Gospels? Well, it turns out that it can. But rather than corroborating the Gospels, what scholar Fabian Udoh finds in To Caesar What Is Caesar’s–a scholarly monograph on tax administration in Roman Palestine from 63 BCE to 70 CE–is that the archaeological record actually contradicts the Gospel narratives.
Surely all of us have heard the famous saying of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” found in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Mk. 12:17; Mt. 22:21; Lk. 20:25). The context of the saying is when hostile questioners try to trap Jesus into taking a stance on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities. Clever as he is, Jesus reframes the matter, by specifying that Roman taxes are a secular matter, as the denarius they hand Jesus bears the face of Caesar, and is thus one his possessions, rather than something pertaining to God. In the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22), the full passage reads:
“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.
‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’
They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.”
While an excellent moment for displaying Jesus’ rhetorical wit, however, the scene does pose a historical-critical question: did the Judeans of this period actually pay Roman taxes using the denarius?
By studying archaeological evidence such as the coin hoards excavated from this period, Udoh argues that this is unlikely. Interacting with the research of Donald Ariel in “A Survey of Coin Finds in Jerusalem,” who provides a systematic analysis of surface excavations and coin finds, Udoh points out that significant numbers of denarii are found in Palestine only after 69 CE, particularly from the reign of Vespasian onward. This was because, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the currency and government in Judea changed dramatically. However, prior to this time (and during the time of Jesus) the primary silver currency in Palestine was the Tyrian shekel. For example, a coin hoard discovered at Isfiya, which contained coins dating from 40 BCE-53 CE, contained 4,400 Tyrian coins compared to only 160 denarii, of which about 30 were of Tiberius (Udoh, pg. 235). To be sure, a few denarii made their way to Palestine through circulation, but this proportion shows that Tyrian shekels were the dominant currency that would have been used for taxation in coin.
In light of this evidence, Udoh (pg. 236) concludes, “the imperial denarii were not required for Roman taxation, and they did not form the basis of the silver currency of the region. The connection that is made in the Gospels, especially in Matt 22:19, between Roman taxation in Judea and the denarius does not offer any specific historical information about taxation in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime.” What is especially interesting about this insight is that the traditional author of the Gospels of Matthew is even reputed to have been a tax collector, specifically a toll collector (τελώνης) in Galilee. That he would thus make a mistake about the currency used for taxation is rather peculiar, though such an error does fit with the fact that the majority of mainstream biblical scholars agree that the traditional authorial attribution is spurious.
Furthermore, taxation in Palestine was not administered by the Romans, but by the Jewish authorities, and it was collected by Jewish agents rather than Roman agents (this was done to make the presence of Roman imperialism less obvious). In the case of Matthew’s occupation as a toll collector, Udoh (pg. 241) explains, “If toll collection was leased out to contractors in Judea, it appears that both the contractors and their agents were Jews.”
As reviewer Ed Cohen explains, summarizing Udoh’s findings in Notre Dame Magazine (“Biblical Tax Story Rendered Implausible”):
“To determine the authenticity of Jesus’ pronouncement, Udoh looked at elements of the story: Did a Roman tax exist in Jesus’s time that everyone was required to pay? Was payment required in a particular Roman coin? Would that coin have borne the likeness of the emperor, and if so, would it have been circulating in such abundance that Jesus could have reasonably expected one to be produced on the spot?
First, Udoh finds no evidence from the period of a census-based, per-capita tribute or ‘poll tax,’ as the word in Matthew and Mark is customarily translated. Any assessments by Rome, he says, likely would have been based on agricultural production and paid in-kind with farm products like grain. In fact, by Udoh’s analysis, Rome did not impose a ‘per capita’ tribute on the people in Judea until 70 CE. He also finds no evidence of a direct tribute requiring payment in Roman money. Finally, he observes that since colonial taxes are notoriously difficult to collect, requiring payment in a specific coin would have only made collection more difficult.
As for the Roman coin Jesus calls for, a silver denarius, these did exist during the time of his ministry, and they would have borne the likeness of Caesar Augustus or Tiberius. But while denarii would have been recognized by people in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’s time, Udoh says, archeological findings suggest they were not the silver coin being used at the time. That coin was the Tyrian shekel.
For these reasons Udoh believes that the render-unto-Caesar story probably originated from a later time or another place.”
And so, the passage is either anachronistic or is conflating a tax imposed from another region than Palestine. If it refers to a tax imposed at a later date, it could be because Mark (the first gospel in which it appears) was composed after 70 CE, which was the earliest time that such a tax was imposed in Palestine. If it is from another region, it could be because Christians in those areas were struggling with the issue of whether they should pay Roman taxes , and the authors of the NT Gospels felt the need to address the question, by spuriously placing a saying on the lips of Jesus that he actually never spoke.
But unlike in the case of Suetonius’ writings, wherein numismatic evidence confirms the details of his narrative, here the evidence of ancient coins does not bear out the narrative of the Gospels. Beyond the problems I noted in my previous review of Keener, this is another reason why we probably shouldn’t be comparing legendary texts like the Gospels to a historical biographer like Suetonius.
 An additional argument from silence may be added against the notion that the historical Jesus had spoken in favor of paying taxes to the Roman authorities, based on Paul’s letters. In Romans 13:6-7, Paul states:
“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
Paul tends to mention when he had a previous teaching of Jesus available on a matter of Christian practice (cf. 1 Cor. 9:14; 11:22-24), and so his failure to mention Jesus’ alleged teaching on paying Roman taxes carries some weight in this passage against the notion that there was such a previous teaching. It’s also worth noting that Paul’s reasoning differs somewhat from Jesus’, since Paul equates the governing authorities with being servants of God, whereas Jesus disassociates Caesar from God.