The Messiah, being born in 4 BC and passing around 30/33 AD, lived through a major economic upheaval in the Roman Empire. The Early Republic after 211 BC, had a regulated monetary supply, with the basic coin being the Denarius. Every other coin was a fraction of the Denarius. For example the Sestertius was denominated as 1/4 of a Denarius. Similar to the Greeks, the Romans minted their coins out of silver, and although the coins had some intrinsic value, the denomination of the coins didn’t necessarily exactly match the differences in the weight. So although a Sestertius was 1/4 of the value of the Denarius, the Sestertius wasn’t necessarily 1/4 of it weight. A Denarius, when it was first minted and standardized, was made of nearly pure silver and had a theoretical weight of 4.5 grams. You would expect that a Sestertius would weight 1/4 of 4.5 grams or around 1.1 grams, but it did not.
The first major disruption to currency that likely influenced the Messiah, was the move from a Republican form of government to a dictatorship. When that happened, Julius Caesar, re-minted the coinage and placed his image on the coins. This may seem like a minor change, but consider the cost involved with taking all the coinage and re-casting it… Crazy… So how did Julius Caesar finance this change? Simple, he reduced the weight of a Denarius from 4.5 grams to 3.9 grams. I conclude that even a “minor” change such as changing the design of coins, inevitably brings unintended consequences and those often damage the economy. The philosopher Epictetus agrees: “Whose image does this sestertius carry? Trajan’s? Give it me. Nero’s? Throw it away, it is unacceptable, it is rotten.” And this continued, every Caesar re-cast the coins to have their own image.
The second, and far larger change, was August Caesar’s coinage reform. Augustus re-based the currency, so while a Sestertius retained it’s value of 1/4 of a Denarius, the next smaller coin, a Dupondius, dropped from 1/5 of a Denarius to 1/8 of a Denarius. Mathematically, Augustus’s changes make sense. August used a multiplier of 2 between each coin, so the coins followed a progression of 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, etc., of a Denarius. Augustus also changed the Sestertius from a silver coin to a bronze coin, and introduced to gold coins that were more valuable than a Denarius. These changes were massive, and think about the impact if all your $5 bills instantly because worth $2.
In summary, the Roman empire continued to debase the intrinsic value of their currency, and emperors constantly changed the value of unit of monetary exchange. This is not economic stability., and now we have the context to understand more about the Messiah’s answer to the Pharisees in Matthew 22:15.
15Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might ensnare him in his talk. 16And they send to him their disciples, with the Herodians, saying, Teacher, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, and carest not for any one: for thou regardest not the person of men. 17Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? 18But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why make ye trial of me, ye hypocrites? 19Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a denarius. 20And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? 21They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. 22And when they heard it, they marvelled, and left him, and went away. American Standard Version. 1995 (Mt 22:15). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
To me the lynch-pin of the Messiah’s response is an in-depth understanding “for thou regardest not the person of men.” I find that the Pharisees’ trap is based on trying to get the Messiah to make a statement about the person on the coin, or the value of the coin. They did not expect that the Messiah would highlight their misunderstanding of tribute versus the intrinsic value of a coin and the necessity of a standard unit of exchange. I read the Messiah’s response as “Caesar’s monetary system is Caesar’s. God’s monetary system is God’s.” It was a masterful response, and hence why the Pharisees marveled: the Messiah struck straight to the core of why the Roman Empire wasn’t as productive as it could be.