inhumane scope of taxation, or expanding the tax base

The most popular taxes are taxes on others.  Tax the rich (those much richer than you).  Tax corporations (who aren’t real persons like you are).  Tax traders, money-lenders, and importers-exporters (what they do is much less important than what you do).  And who here would object to taxing foreigners?

Given ominously growing public-sector debts around the world and public resistance to paying taxes, tax authorities should consider shifting the tax base toward non-humans.  A renegade political economist teaching on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean about two thousand years ago described this tax policy innovation:

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does not your teacher pay the two-drachma tax?”  He said, “Yes.”  And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon {Peter}?  From whom do the kings of the earth take customs fees or capitation taxes?  From their sons or from others?”  And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.  However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a stater; take that and give it to them for me and for you.” [1]

Peter declared that Jesus pays the tax.  Peter also implicitly described Jesus as an other, because taxes were collected “from others.”  Jesus, however, implicitly described himself and Peter as sons of a king, hence free from the obligation of having to pay taxes.  That freedom isn’t limited to Jesus and Peter.  Christian scripture makes clear that every human being can be a child of God, the greatest king.[2]  The only beings left for “others” in Jesus’s personal categorization are non-human animals like fish.  A tax scheme based on taxing others, according to the promise of Jesus, taxes only non-humans.  Fortunately, fish, if caught, can pay taxes.

ichthus: fish symbol of Christians

For more than 1500 years, some taxpayers have remembered Jesus with the symbol of a fish.  The fish represents “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”[3] The fish indicates an alternate source for paying taxes.

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[1] Matthew 17:24-27.  I’ve adapted the New Revised Standard translation to describe monetary and tax terms more literally.  This pericope occurs in only the Gospel of Matthew.  Matthew 9:9 and 10:3 describe the apostle Matthew as being a tax collector, or in the specific terms of the above translation, a collector of customs fees.  Exodus 30:11-16 describes a half-shekel capitation tax to be given as an offering to God.  This pericope is commonly called “Jesus and the Temple Tax,” but some aspects of the text suggest a Roman tax.  No scholarly consensus exists as to whether the tax was a Jewish or Roman tax.

A wide-spread folktale motif is a ring, thrown into the sea, turned in the belly of a fish. See, e.g. Herodotus, Histories 3.39-43 and Verstraete (1998). In the biblical story, the folktale motif perhaps suggests that the money found in the fish refunds taxes previously paid.

[2] John 1:12, 11:52; Romans 8:16-16; Ephesians 1:5; Galatians 3:26; 1 John 3:1-2.

[3] The symbol is known as the ichthys.  The letters of the Greek word for fish correspond to the first letters of each word in the Greek expression for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”


Verstraete, Beert. 1998. “The Ring inside the Fish: A Comparison of the Use of a Similar Folklore Motif in Herodotus and a Dutch-Frisian Folktale.” Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies 19(1): 14-18.

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