Why do we say "Rob Peter to pay Paul"?

Well-Known Expressions

Rob Peter to pay Paul

Meaning:

To take money from one source to give to another that is virtually identical.

Background:

The source of this phrase is unclear but dates back to at least the 16th century as it is included in John Heywood's lengthy list of proverbs in the middle of the 1500s.

It is not clear who the Peter and Paul referenced are. On the one hand it could just be a bit of alliteration, on the other it doesn't take a biblical scholar to surmise that it is likely a reference to the two apostles.

One theory is that the reference is to Church taxes paid to either St Paul's in London or St Peter's in Rome, but this would not seem to align with the interpretation of the expression as meaning to take from one body to give to another that is virtually the same. And, indeed, it seems that this theory has been largely debunked by scholars.

What seems more likely is that the expression derives from the shared feast day of St Paul and St Peter (June 29th) and thus to rob the feast of St Peter to pay for the feast of St Paul would be pointless.

Alphabetical list of expressions

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