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I know what this means: "To pay one debt by incurring another" or other variants of it, but where did the saying come from. I'm not aware of any biblical instance of this.

Deep down I want this to somehow involve Peter, Paul and Mary... :)

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Peter and Paul are just common names, like Tom, Dick, and Harry. The first two may gain/retain prevalence from biblical resonance, though I doubt Peter, Paul and Mary relied much on that to launch their bid for stardom. –  FumbleFingers Aug 26 '11 at 14:49
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"We're not robbing Peter to pay Paul. We're hitting all the apostles, and a few prophets besides." –  mmyers Aug 26 '11 at 14:56
    
"A government with the policy to rob Peter to pay Paul can be assured of the support of Paul." -GB Shaw; see working-minds.com/GBSquotes.htm. –  rajah9 Aug 26 '11 at 15:54

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The origin comes from the Peter tax and the Paul tax:

The expression refers to times before the Reformation when Church taxes had to be paid to St. Paul's church in London and to St. Peter's church in Rome; originally it referred to neglecting the Peter tax in order to have money to pay the Paul tax.

The Peter tax referred to the tax that people had to pay to fund the building of St. Peter's Church, while the Paul tax referred to the tax that the people had to pay to fund the building of St. Paul's Cathedral.

When the idiom says "rob", it takes that if you don't pay a tax, you are robbing a person (pope, in this case) of what that person rightfully deserves.

Thus, the saying means, not paying the Peter tax in order to pay the Paul tax.

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When do you think these two taxes "competed" with each other for scarce taxpayers' money? Following Henry the 8th's split with Rome in 1534, I doubt we'd have raised any taxes for St Peter's Italian-based edifice. The only relevant tax I can find was on coal in the mid/late 1600s, to pay for Wren's rebuilding of St Paul's. But @Waggers has a citation from 1450 which seems to suggest that the conjunction of these two names in relation to juggling debts was quite familiar hundreds of years earlier. –  FumbleFingers Aug 26 '11 at 14:43
    
@FumbleFinger, the poll tax instead is well attested and was quite well known in the 90s ;-). Seriously Wren's building's is just the 5th of a long series of cathedrals traced back to the 7th century when the Christianisation of the heathen Saxons was in full swing. That could justify some tax as well. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Aug 26 '11 at 14:54
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@Alain Pannetier: I don't deny it could, but in the circumstances this seems like clutching at straws. Back in those days, the great mass of the population paid fiefs to a local lord - they'd have known nothing of how some of that money ended up going through the king to one ecclestiastical project or another, international or London-based. –  FumbleFingers Aug 26 '11 at 15:22
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I was merely reacting to your hint, at least as I understood it, that the St Paul tax referred to the current cathedral. Also consider that the excerpt cited by Thursagen contains refers to times before the Reformation which to me means this cathedral, which you will agree was quite massive as well. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Aug 26 '11 at 17:24

We don't normally like to give links to other resources as StackExchange answers but I think you'll struggle to find a more comprehensive answer than this one:

The lands of Westminster so dilapidated by Bishop Thirlby, that there was almost nothing left to support the dignity; for which good service he had been preferred to the see of Norwich, in the year foregoing. Most of the lands invaded by the great men of the court, the rest laid out for reparation to the church of St Paul - pared almost to the very quick in those days of rapine. From hence first came that significant by-word (as is said by some) of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In essence the expression is very old, possibly dating to around 1380, but there is ongoing discussion around why the names Peter and Paul were chosen.

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Well, the article you've linked suggests, that the origins are indeed biblical and Peter and Paul are Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul. –  Philoto Aug 26 '11 at 14:19
    
Yes, it suggests that as a possible explanation but not a definitive one. –  Waggers Aug 26 '11 at 14:20
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@Philoto: I don't see the linked article seriously endorses that interpretation. It just points out these two names were very familiar, and that later usages sometimes prefixed both by "Saint". Perhaps in the (probably fanciful) belief that there ought to be a biblial connection. –  FumbleFingers Aug 26 '11 at 14:54
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@Waggers, you can always link to the resource that gives a really complete answer and then quote a relevant piece (and this is probably recommended for links that are critical to your answer, in case of link rot). Plenty of good SE answers include links, just not as the only thing in the answer :) In this instance, I'd suggest quoting what Phrases.uk says about the possible year 1450 or 1380 origins. –  aedia λ Aug 26 '11 at 14:57

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