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God and Caesar:

The Secular and the Religious

By Duncan Roper

 

One of the features of our secular age is reflected in the way that we read the Bible. To illustrate the point, it has become customary for many of us to read the texts of the New Testament that touch upon political life in way that conform with the modern principle of ‘the separation of church and state’, in the sense that the state is concerned with secular life and church with religious life – to the extent that religion is to be excluded from the running of the state.

 

In some ways it is not all that difficult to do this. With regard to the first two verses of the thirteenth chapter of the epistle to the Romans, for example, the apostle Paul lays down the principle that ‘every person (ie all Pagans, Jews and Christians) should be subject to the governing authorities.’ This is because ‘all authority derives from God and hence resisting authority is a resistance to what God himself has appointed.’ Then again it is common to interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:21 ‘Render, therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’ in ways that view the political realm of Caesar as one that should not be influenced either by the Church or by personal religious convictions. 

 

Now, it is of course true that for much the greater part of Christian history, commentators on the New Testament have differed as to the precise meaning and intention of these texts.  For the most part, however, they have recognised the co-existence of two authorities: the one charged with matters of religion and the other with what we would call politics. In this respect, the New Testament life of Christians was in marked contrast with its precursors and its contemporaries, and successors. Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Republican worlds had to reckon with both the religious god-like powers of the Hellenistic monarchies of Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt as well as the claims of the pagan gods upon all peoples under Roman rule.  With the end of the Roman civil strife - initiated by Julius Caesar’s decision to order his armies ‘to cross the Rubicon’ in 49 BC – the victory of Octavian Augustus Caesar over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC precipitated the god-like aspirations of his uncle/adopted father, Julius Caesar. 

 

In Octavian Augustus these god-like powers became part and parcel of the imperial Roman office of Caesar.   Asserting that his adoptive father Julius Caesar was divine, Augustus gave himself the title ‘son of God’, and turned the Roman republic into an empire with himself at its head. Claiming that Augustus had thereby brought justice and ‘peace’ to the world, the Roman poets [such as Virgil in the Aeneid], lauded him as ‘saviour’ and ‘lord’ of the world.  Luke addresses his Gospel (and also Acts) to ‘Theophilus’, a Greek name meaning ‘lover of God’, but using a formal style of address socially expected when speaking to a high-ranking Roman official – ‘most excellent Theophilus’.  [Paul addresses Roman Governor Festus in exactly this way in Acts 26:25.]  We do not know whether ‘Theophilus’ was a Roman official interested to know about the Way of Jesus the Messiah, or if Luke is using this as a stylized form of address to any reader under the rule of the Roman empire wanting to love God.   However, Luke clearly wants his readers within that Roman world to know the religio - socio-political context for the birth of Jesus:  that Mary had been told by the angel her baby would be ‘the son of the Most High’, that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because of a decree by the self-styled ruler of the world Augustus Caesar [Luke 2:1], and that the circumstances of the birth of the true ‘saviour’, who is ‘Messiah the lord’, and the one who will bring real ‘peace’ to the earth indicated that the weak baby in the manger was already in conflict with the pretentions of the Roman empire and the claims of Augustus.  This conflict with the empire is underlined in the account of John the Baptist [Luke 3:1], and these early incidents all set the stage for the later meeting of Jesus with Pilate in the passion story considered later in this article. 

 

Thereafter, from the time of Constantine, the office of Caesar becomes one that is the representative (or vicar) of divinity. Later, after the demise of the political power of the Western Roman Emperor from around 480 AD, and the subsequent rise of the powers of Bishops, and the powers of the Bishop of Rome (The Pope) in particular, this came to mean that the two human authorities in the West– the Pope/Church and Emperor/KIng - vied for the right to claim to be ‘the vicar of Christ’ on the earth. This also constitutes the back-ground from which what we have come to know as the doctrines of the full supremacy of the Pope over all temporal rulers on the one hand, and ‘the divine right of kings’ on the other came to develop. The supremacy of these kinds of practices and doctrines were the subject of major critiques and upheavals in the Europe and America of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and beyond. The expression ‘the separation of Church and State’ – meaning that the state is secular and the church is religious is the popular expression of this Eighteenth century Enlightenment idea.

 

Now there are undoubtedly many who would want to claim that Jesus was actually advocating a doctrine of a separation between religious and secular power in his words offered in his response to the trick question put to him by the followers of the Pharisees in the gospel of Matthew quoted above. This option, however, has to be considered extremely unlikely – for the simple reason that he was actually dealing with a trick question whose content needs to be properly understood.

 

We read, for example, that ‘the Pharisees went and plotted how they might trap him into saying the wrong thing. They sent their followers to him, with the Herodians.’ [Matt 22:16] These people said to Jesus: ‘We know that you are truthful, and that you teach God's way truthfully. You don't care what anyone thinks about you, because you don't try to flatter people or favour them. So tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, or not?’ Jesus is reported as being well aware of their evil intentions. [Matt 22:18]

 

He said: ‘Why are you trying to trick me, you hypocrites? Show me the tribute coin.’ They brought him a dinar. ‘This . . . image and this... inscription. Who do they belong to?

 

‘Caesar,’ they replied. ‘Well then,’ said Jesus, ‘you'd better give Caesar back what belongs to Caesar! And give God back what belongs to God!’ [Matt 22:21].

 

The followers of the Pharisees are reported as being astonished. As a result they went away, “tails between their legs” having been completely outwitted.

 

To grasp the central thrust of the way in which Jesus had outwitted his accusers, we first need to appreciate that it was impossible in the ancient world to consider ‘the secular pursuit of political life’ as non-religious or independent of religion. Rather, one of the main features dividing the Jews living in Palestine in the first century was whether or not they should recognise the legitimacy of the rule of Caesar or seek to overthrow it because it was contrary to the will of God. The Sadducees, comprising the ruling elite, supported Roman rule on pragmatic grounds. The Hillelite Pharisees considered that any messianic fulfilment of a Jewish political restoration of the Kingdom of God to Israel would come about without any direct intervention on the part of the Jews themselves. The Sharma-ite Pharisees and the Zealots believed that the will of God in this matter needed to be supported and encouraged by forms of direct action to help topple the Romans. [see http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3190-bet-hillel-and-bet-shammai]. The latter course was, in fact, central to the Jewish uprisings in Judea during 67-74 AD and 132-135 AD. The subsequent marked down-turn in the influence of the Sharma-ite Pharisees and the up-turn of the influence of the Hillelites were amongst the main reasons for the course of events that saw the development of modern Rabbinic Judaism accommodating to their situation as Jews - both Ashkenazi and Sephardic – as a more or less permanent diaspora throughout the Middle East and European worlds. [see http://www.jewfaq.org/ashkseph.htm].

Thus the question put to Jesus as to whether or not it was legitimate to pay taxes to Caesar was one that a straightforward answer of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would than likely make him public enemy number one of at least one of the two rival factions. Answering ‘no’ would enable the Sadducees to denounce him as a rebel to the Romans. Answering ‘yes’ would have placed him offside with all the injustice, the bottled up hatred and disappointment at living under both pagan rule, as well as the sham self-rule of the Judaism of the houses of  the Hasmoneans and the Herodians. [see http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/palestine-under-hasmonean-rule/4/; http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/herod.htm]. It would also have seriously damaged Jesus’ credibility concerning the preaching of the coming Kingdom of God on the part of those linked with the Zealots and the Sharma-ite Pharisees.

 

The answer he, in fact, gave was one that raised serious questions for all his enquirers. What belonged to God?  What was Caesar’s responsibility to the Lord of Heaven and Earth? What were Roman taxes for?  Why were those collecting them universally despised? Were they properly and fairly used?

 

A significant contribution to an understanding of Kingship and the power of Caesar, at the time of the New Testament, is recorded in the conversation between Pilate and Jesus in the 18th and 19th chapters of John’s gospel.

 

Responding to the Jewish authorities who had brought Jesus before him, Pilate said to them ‘Take him yourselves, and judge him by your own law.’ They replied to the effect that ‘If he wasn't doing wicked things, we wouldn't have handed him over to you. Moreover, the Judaeans indicated what they were really after by saying that ‘We're not allowed to put anyone to death.’ So Pilate went back into the Praetorium and spoke to Jesus. [John 18:31-33].

 

‘Are you the king of the Jews?’  he asked Jesus, who replied ‘Was it your idea to ask that? Or did other people tell you about me?’ ‘I'm not a Jew, am I?’ retorted Pilate. ‘Your own people, and the chief priests, have handed you over to me! I would like to know what you have done for them to bring you here.’[John 18:33-35]

 

‘My kingdom doesn’t have its origins in this world of politics’ Jesus replied. ‘If my kingdom were from this world, then my supporters would have fought to stop me being handed over to the Judaeans.

 

To this Pilate exclaimed ‘So! You really are a king?’ to which Jesus replied ‘You're the one who's calling me a king. Nonetheless, I was born for this; I've come into the world for this: to give evidence about the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

To this Pilate exclaimed ‘Truth! What on earth is that?’ And with those words, he went back out to speak with the Judaeans.

 

‘I find this man not guilty!’ he said to them. ‘But maybe we can reach some kind of agreement. You have a custom that I should let someone free at Passover-time. So what about it? How about my releasing 'the king of the Jews'?’

 

‘No!’ they shouted. ‘We don't want him released! Give us Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a brigand. Hence Pilate then took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers wove a crown of thorns, put it on his head, and dressed him up in a purple robe. Then they came up to him and said, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ [John 18:36 -19:3]

 

And they slapped him. Pilate went out again. 'Look,' he said to them, ‘I'm bringing him out to you, so that you'll know I find no guilt in him.’

So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak. ‘Look!’ said Pilate. ‘Here's the man!’  Hence, when the chief priests and their attendants saw him, they gave a great shout.

 

‘Crucify him!’ they yelled. ‘Crucify him!’

 

‘Take him yourselves and crucify him!’ said Pilate. ‘I find him not guilty!’

 

The Judaeans replied: ‘We've got a law, and according to that law he deserves to die! He made himself the son of God!’ When Pilate heard that, he was all the more afraid. He went back into the Praetorium and spoke to Jesus asking him ‘Where do you come from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate addressed him again.

 

‘Aren't you going to speak to me?’ he said. ‘Don't you know that I have the authority to let you go, and the authority to crucify you?’ Jesus replied to him that ‘You couldn't have any authority at all over me, unless it was given to you from above. That's why the person who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’

 

From that moment on, Pilate tried to let him go. But the Judaeans shouted at him. ‘If you let this fellow go, you are no friend of Caesar! Everyone who sets himself up as a king is speak-ing against Caesar!’ So when Pilate heard them saying that, he brought Jesus out and sat down at the official judgment seat, called ‘the Pavement’ (in Hebrew, ‘Gabbatha’). It was about midday of the Preparation day of the Passover.

 

Pilate came to them and said ‘Look, here is your king! Take him away!’ They shouted back ‘Take him away! Crucify him!’ 

 

Pilate responded: ‘Do you want me to crucify your king?’ to which the chief priests replied ‘We have no king except Caesar!’  

 

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. [John 19:5-16].

 

The clear message of Jesus to Pilate embodied the following features:

 

  1. The God of Creation, Lord of all the nations and empires of the earth, was the one who had given power and authority for humans, as his image-bearers, to rule the earth. 
  2. As a consequence Caesar and all those under him, were responsible to God for the way they exercised their political and other forms of power.
  3. Jesus was indeed the King of the Jews, but this calling of Kingship turned everything topsy-turvy.  The King was crucified, rejected and suffered at the hands of a rebellious humanity.
  4. This humanity was called to a repentance that involved a radical change of heart – an inner circumcision of both male and female – to become members of Civitas Dei serving in the Kingdom of God he had inaugurated.
  5. These actions of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah entailed the establishment of his eternal Kingdom, and his disciples were to live out this vision and communicate it to others in the same humble and suffering spirit as their master.

 

The City of God is Augustine’s longest and many ways greatest book.  Its subject is the major conflict of history as pictured between two cities; Civitas Dei, the City of God, and Civitas Terra, the City of the earth. Rightly understood, Civitas Dei is the community of the redeemed who seek to live by the gospel in all the cultural spheres of Civitas Terra, exercising whatever limited powers they might have in the cause of spiritual and cultural reformation.  It is indeed very unfortunate that the major ways in which this distinction has been read is either between Christendom and her enemies in the Middle Ages, or else, more recently, as between Church and State.  Both of these ways of reading it tend to overlook the fact that what we call ‘church’ – although a God given institution with powers and authority – is yet itself something of an institution that functions as something of a battleground involving the Kingdom of God - Civitas Dei -and the Kingdom of the World – Civitas Terra.  

 

Thus, in the course of human history, it is quite possible for the institutional church to radically fail in its calling.  The same may be said for the political authority.  In recent centuries, the process of secularisation in the Western world has done a great deal to negate and blunten the possibilities for a cultural renewal by the modest life of the organismic or messianic community of Civitas Dei within the various cultural spheres of human life. This is not a matter of bringing religious emphases to bear where they do not belong. It is a matter of salting the earth with love and compassion within the local ekklesia; with the salting the state by a constant reference to the normative rule of justice of all kinds. It is also a matter of the grace, mercy and love within the spheres of marriages and families; a just and fair economic well-being within the life of trade unions linked with employers federations. Furthermore, it calls for a spiritual and aesthetic renewal of the arts, as well as a thorough workover of scientific and scholarly endeavour.

 

To gain some insight to the Biblical way in which the different spheres of human cultural and social life should function under the overall rule of God setting out its various distinctive and diverse callings, we need to study the book of Deuteronomy, in which the callings of both the state and the priesthood are cut down to a size involving a king, should Israel desire one, with the following qualifications:

 

When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and dwell in it, and then say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations that are round about me’; you may indeed set as king over you him whom the Lord your God shall choose. One from among your brethren you shall set as king over you. You will not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not multiply horses for himself, or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again. And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply for himself silver and gold. [Deuteronomy 17: 14-17]

 

To conclude. This article may fall well short of giving policies and/or technical details for the ways in which this kind of renewal might take place.  That, however, is NOT its intention. The way a community needs to actually begin and continue to exercise its God-given cultural power is not by way of a program or a blue-print. It is by way of a VISION. This is the major intent of the article. In this respect, I hope that there is indeed much for us to ponder and reflect upon concerning the living out of the gospel in the everyday life of our secular age.

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