“Do not render to Caesar what is not Caesar’s,” insists jesus christ.
RACHEL Palestine, 2000 years ago. An occupied country. Violence every day the terror of the Roman troops and the armed resistance of the population. It was a situation similar to what see today in various parts of the planet. To talk about this with us we have our special guest, Jesus Christ.
JESUS Thank you, Rachel, for giving me this opportunity to speak, once again, with so many people that I can’t see, but who are listening to us.
RACHEL You were telling us that in your time there was a rural guerrilla movement in Galilee and an urban one in Jerusalem, and that a few Zealot guerrillas belonged to your own group in those days. Is that how it was?
JESUS Yes, there were more than one or two …
RACHEL But you did not opt for armed struggle. Why not?
JESUS The first and most important thing was to open the eyes and the ears of the people, Rachel. An eagle has two claws, and he catches his prey with both of them. My people were the prey of foreign troops, but the Romans weren’t the only ones tyrannizing the people. The priests of the Temple also preyed upon them, through fear. Soldiers and priests those were the two claws.
RACHEL Please explain that to us a little better.
JESUS The Romans bled us dry with taxes and terrorized us with their weapons. At the same time the priests were pacifying us with the kind of god they preached. They had established the Kingdom of the Devil. But we were announcing what was opposed to that the Kingdom of God.
RACHEL The priests had that much power?
JESUS They had the Temple, which was a great business it involved the sale of animals for sacrifices, the exchange of foreign coins, trading in the things of God. They also had the Law, which was a heavy yoke on the people fasts, alms, tithes, … And they had fear, Rachel they preached a punishing God who took no heed of sick people, women, or the poor.
RACHEL And the people put up with that?
JESUS The people were blind, deaf, paralyzed….
RACHEL But you confronted that power. Were you a revolutionary?
JESUS I used to say nobody above anybody else, we are all brothers and sisters. And God is the only Lord. Does that make me a revolutionary?
RACHEL And for saying such things the religious powers-that-be persecuted you. Do you consider yourself a dissident, a heretic?
JESUS Sure. Several times they wanted to stone me as a heretic. They threw me out of the synagogue. And the High Priest condemned me to death as a blasphemer.
RACHEL Nevertheless, you were tolerant regarding political power. You were in agreement with the payment of taxes to the Roman emperor.
JESUS What do you mean by that?
RACHEL I’m referring to your famous phrase, the one cited by all the world’s politicians “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” – as if to say taxes for Caesar and praises to God.
JESUS But that’s not what I said, Rachel. I said don’t give to Caesar what is not Caesar’s. That’s what I said.
RACHEL It’s backwards, then?
JESUS Rather, it’s frontwards! Because that man, Caesar, thought he was God. He was arrogant and presumptuous. He had his face engraved on the coins. What I said was don’t give him what he asks of you. Put him in his place. He’s only a man. And give God what is God’s. God is above everybody.
RACHEL So you did not approve of the payment of taxes?
JESUS How could I approve of people’s paying taxes to a foreign empire? How could they be expected to pay tribute to a man who thought he was God?
RACHEL But why did they turn your words around in the gospels?
JESUS Didn’t I tell you that the Romans had us all terrified? It seems that the people who later wrote about the Kingdom of God still had shaky knees in the face of Rome.
RACHEL In that violent world, so similar to our own, what was Jesus Christ’s political project? We’ll discuss that in our next program, so don’t miss it. This is Rachel Perez, Emisoras Latinas, Jerusalem.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
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A patriot, not a Zealot
Jesus was not a Zealot. The Zealots were ultra-nationalists. They wanted Israel to be liberated from the Roman yoke, but they did not look beyond the frontiers of their own country. Jesus was a patriot, but his project broke through frontiers and refused to discriminate by race or religion. The Zealots were profoundly religious, but their God was a God that belonged exclusively to Israel, “the chosen people”. According to them, when God established his Kingdom, he would take vengeance on the pagan nations. Jesus never spoke of a God who excluded others or who took vengeance.
The Zealots were ardent advocates of strict observance of the Law. Jesus differed from them in this point because of his total liberty in the face of the authorities and the laws, even when these were longstanding Jewish norms. Despite his differences with them, Jesus maintained relations with the Zealots, and some of his disciples were most probably sympathizers or members of the Zealot movement. Many of the social demands of the Zealot movement were shared by Jesus, and the two movements used similar expressions in their ardent desire for the dawning of a reign of justice.
Jesus: violent or non-violent?
Jesus had a basic disagreement with the Zealots in that he did not support violent tactics. Nevertheless, it would be an oversimplification to state that Jesus was a non-violent pacifist or that the gospel condemns all violence, “wherever it may come from”. When he was confronting the authorities, especially the religious authorities, and more specifically the priests, Jesus’ words were quite violent.
Jesus used violence at certain moments, especially in the action he took in the Temple esplanade a few days before he was killed. However, he did not kill; rather, he was killed. He never urged his disciples to use violence, nor did he use armed resistance to save his own life, when surely he could have done so. And certainly one of his most original messages was that we must love our enemies, which does not mean not having enemies, but being capable of pardoning them, not responding to hate with hate, or to violence with violence.
In the time of Jesus, at that concrete moment in Israel’s history, the violence promoted by the Zealots could never have succeeded. It was doomed to failure, and it was a constant pretext for the Romans to unleash their powerful apparatus of repression against the people. This occurred especially in the year 70, when Rome razed Jerusalem as a way of putting down a Zealot insurrection.
Roman taxes: an unbearable burden
The principal function of the Roman governor in Judea – in the time of Jesus, it was Pontius Pilate – was to collect revenues for the empire. He supervised the collection of the taxes that Rome demanded of the province, as it did of all the territories under its control. The governor also had to keep the people at bay, since they periodically became rebellious because of the extortionate practices that the highly abusive Roman system of taxation inevitably involved.
Starting from the days of King Solomon, a thousand years before Jesus, the kingdom of Israel had required taxes of its citizens, although their collection system was not fully developed. The Persians and the Greeks, who occupied the country from 500 to 150 BCE, also established tributary systems. With the Roman domination of Palestine, which became definitive about 6 years before Jesus’ birth, a more rigorous form of collecting tributes was imposed on the Israelites. Rome captured all the profits from the country’s production through a broad network of customs posts that were established for the collection of a variety of taxes. By means of such posts Rome controlled all commercial movement in the province.
The province of Judea had to make an annual tax payment to Rome of 600 talents, which was the equivalent of six million denarii (a denarius was what a laborer earned for a full day’s work). The Romans levied on Palestine three types of taxes: 1) territorial taxes, paid partly in kind and partly in cash; 2) commercial taxes, which were paid on all imported and exported goods; and 3) personal taxes, which varied according to wealth and income, although one general tax, called the tributum capitis (tax per head), was paid by everybody except children and the elderly– it’s the tax referred to in the gospel.
The high priests, the maximum religious authorities of Israel, made agreements with the Romans in order to maintain their power and, above all, their privileged economic situation. The local government of Judea, called the Sanhedrin, was headed by the high priest, but it had no authority at all with regard to taxation, defense, or relations with other countries. Its only mission was to maintain religious worship and guarantee that religious law was strictly observed.
The “gods” of Rome
During Jesus’ lifetime the Roman emperors were Caesar Augustus and then Tiberius Caesar. Augustus, who reigned from the year 30 BCE to 14 CE, initiated the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty. Tiberius, son of the second wife of Augustus, governed from 14 to 37 CE; it was during his reign that Jesus was executed. After Tiberius other Caesars continued to govern in Rome: Caligula, Claudius, Nero, etc.
Tiberius made Augustus, his adoptive father, into a god. Little by little, the ambition for power drove the Caesars to demand that their subjects worship them personally, as if they were gods. In the time of Jesus the tendency to divinize the Roman emperor was increasing, and afterwards it became firmly established, until the fall of the empire. Caligula had himself worshiped even while he was alive. The Caesars ordered people to prostrate themselves in their presence, and they made images of themselves that were to be venerated by the public. Israel fiercely resisted this custom, which it considered a horrendous form of blasphemy. Although the Jewish religious leaders theoretically did not accept Caesar’s divinity, in practice they turned a blind eye and kept quiet about it out of complicity with the established power. The Zealots, because of their nationalism and their religious faith in Yahweh, their one and only God, were completely opposed to any payment of taxes to the “god of Rome”. In this regard Jesus was in complete agreement with them.
A delicate question and a radical answer
One of the most common reasons for mass revolts in Israel was the burdensome taxation. Refusal to pay taxes to Rome was precisely what enkindled the Jewish war in the year 70 CE, during which Jerusalem was leveled down to its foundations and the Jewish people were scattered into the Diaspora. In this context, the question that was posed to Jesus about whether or not taxes should be paid to Rome was especially delicate. The Zealots refused to pay them as an act of resistance to Rome. The collaborationist classes, such as the Sadducees and the priests, recommended that they be paid. The Pharisees wavered: theoretically, they were opposed, since they were very nationalist, but in practice they ended up paying them.
The verse, Render to Caesar what is due to Caesar, and return to God what is due to God (Matthew 22,15-22; Mark 12,13-17; Luke 20,20-26), is one of those sayings endlessly repeated by politicians and ecclesiastics of all shades and all leanings. Of all Jesus’ declarations, it is the one that has been most manhandled and misinterpreted. This gospel text is frequently employed by political and religious figures to separate faith from politics for two purposes: either to reinforce the idea that religion is just a matter of prayers and devotions and has nothing to do with social and political commitment, or to promote the idea that politics should not be subject to criticism on the basis of ethical or moral principles.
This phrase is often interpreted as evidence that Jesus respected established authority and made a distinction between our commitments to God and our obligations to earthly governments. The is thus assumed that Jesus thought the same way as Paul, who many years later would state that authority should be obeyed because all authority comes from God (Romans 13,1-4).
Jesus had to address the question of taxes, since it was a constant topic of discussion in his country and his time, one that seriously affected poor people. However, we have good reason to believe that Jesus’ views on this topic, which are condensed into this saying, underwent modification as they were successively passed on in the oral traditions of the first communities, which eventually were put into written form. All such development of tradition happened, of course, during times when the Roman empire and its emperors were all-powerful and much feared. We can hardly believe that Jesus, who must have been repelled by the divinization of Caesar and knew full well the horror of Roman abuses, could have respected Caesar’s authority. Rather, on this occasion he took advantage of the delicate question posed to him to offer a radical response: Give Caesar nothing of what he demands, neither reverence nor taxes. Put him in his proper place, the place of an ordinary human being. The place of God belongs to God alone.
A short time later…
What happened later in history is shocking and scandalous. Jesus was roundly opposed to the payment of taxes, which was linked to the cult of the Roman emperor, who thought himself divine. Three centuries later, the popes in Rome, who presented themselves as the representatives of Jesus, adopted all the expressions and the rites of the emperor cult: ceremonial vestments, incense, candles, throne, crown and scepter. Furthermore, they imposed taxes on their subjects, in the form of tithing. All the Vatican pomp we see today is a reflection of the cultic ceremony that once surrounded the divinization of the Roman emperors. And the collection of tithes, which over the centuries made the Roman church wealthy, also represented an unbearable burden on the poorest people. What would Jesus say? Give Caesar nothing of what he demands, neither reverence nor tithes. Put him in his proper place.