'Render unto Caesar…”
“Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”
“For He (the Son of Man) will be handed over to the Gentiles, and He will be mocked, insulted, spit on…”
Not exactly the Messianic declaration a first-century subjugated people were hoping to hear…
While the Jewish roots of Jesus are possibly the most fascinating area of New Testament study, it is often overlooked that those Jewish roots sprung from soil that languished under Roman occupation.
Admittedly, there is a certain common ground between the two areas of study, but a tension exists also.
Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth offered a gentle, rural Jewish existence, but one thoroughly defined by Rome. Just to the north was the burgeoning Roman city of Tzipori (the only steady local employment for builders like Jesus and Joseph) and the Roman highway between Ptolomais and Tiberius.
The view over Nazareth’s southern rim exhibited the Jezreel Valley, site of many of the heroes of Israel’s exploits, but also the route of past invaders Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt. Rome was the latest superpower to control the trade route.
In addition to Roman geographic bounds, Jesus’ life was chronologically bookended by Rome, as both his birth and death were set in a Roman context.
The birth narrative begins as Mary and Joseph, settled strategically in the small Galilean village of Nazareth, received the mandate to register for the census in Bethlehem, their ancestral home. This was no pleasure trip by the new couple but a toilsome journey, especially for the expectant Mary.
But they endure the trials of the trek in order to avoid Roman wrath.
Rome held a census for two purposes: One, to determine the number of available men of military age and, two, to figure its tax base. In the case of conquered peoples, it was the second of these that applied. Any interference with Rome’s tax base was considered rebellion.
Romans had developed a lifestyle dependent on severe taxes of its subject peoples. The acclaimed magnificence of Rome was built upon the agrarian, pastoral and fishing efforts of Jews and other conquered peoples.
“The tax burden for Jews in Judea and Galilee in the first century included taxes enacted by the Roman government and taxes for the Jerusalem temple,” according to Paul Wright, director of Jerusalem University College. He does admit, “The total tax burden is hard to estimate,” adding that he has read it was between 50-90 percent of earnings.
Wright adds, “Don’t forget to factor in something extra for extortion by the tax collectors working for the Roman government.” Gospel writer Luke records John the Baptist alluding to this extortion as he warns tax collectors, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” (Luke 3:13)
While precise figures are hard to determine, it is certainly accurate to say Rome squeezed exorbitant taxes from subjugated peoples to provide “panem et circenses” (bread and circus) to its citizens.
Tax collectors, or publicans (based on the Latin root), are prominent in the Gospel story as they represented the depth of human depravity and breadth of Gospel redemption.
Since neither Caesar nor Herod were going to sit in a tax collector’s booth, that responsibility was auctioned off by territories. Whatever tax collectors garnered above their bid was profit. After a large area was bid, portions would be sub-contracted out to smaller collectors, each taking a cut of the profits. Clearly this system prompted corruption.
And yet Jesus, his life inextricably bound to the Roman occupation and its exploitation of his people, considered publicans salvageable. Jesus even envisioned one as a candidate to be one of his 12 disciples.
That tax collector himself, a Gospel writer, recounts, “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.” (Matt. 9:9-10)
Matthew collected taxes at strategic Capernaum. The largest fishing town on the Sea of Galilee, it was on the international highway that connected the giants of the ancient world (Egypt and the Mesopotamian powers) – a critical point for levying taxes.
Still, Matthew was not alone as one hundred Roman troops were nearby and on call if needed. The presence of the centurion (commander of one hundred) who asked Jesus to heal his absentee servant indicates the proximate power of Rome. (Matt. 8:5-13)
This conversation between Jesus and a Roman (one of two recorded in Scripture) is noteworthy as it exhibits that contact between occupied and occupier was not always hostile. Indeed, that centurion had built the synagogue in Capernaum. (Luke 7:4)
Jesus’ praise of the centurion’s faith is consistent with other proclamations regarding Israel’s ancient foes.
Preaching God’s favor toward gentiles (the Sidon widow and Na’aman the Syrian) in spite of Israel’s needy, Jesus had been rejected at his hometown of Nazareth. Wright thinks this sermon spurred a parallel in the minds of his fellow Nazarenes, enraging them.
“Nazareth seems to have been a small, rural, provincial village with a population that was primarily, if not exclusively, Jewish in the first century AD. Rome was an outside, occupying force, but one that brought with it certain advantages for the good life for locals if the locals were willing to make certain compromises and concessions to Rome. For most Jews from conservative communities such as Nazareth, this was hard to do, if it was considered at all.
“Jesus spoke favorably of persons from Phoenicia and Syria in his speech to the men of Nazareth in Luke 4 – two neighboring nations from the time of the Old Testament with which Israel had had numerous run-ins over the centuries. Phoenicia signaled the economic opportunities of the Mediterranean world, while Syria (Aram-Damascus) signaled military and political domination. Both of these qualities were representative of Rome at the time of Jesus. So to speak of God’s favor to gentiles in Phoenicia and Syria from the time of Elijah and Elisha prompted Jesus’ listeners to conclude that Jesus was also speaking about God’s favor to Rome – and that, at the apparent expense of His own chosen people who were just trying to eke out an existence in spite of the oppressive, in-your-face Roman domination at the time.
Wright, author of “Greatness, Grace and Glory,” concludes, “For people living in a conservative, provincial village trying to make a go of it while the oppressive power was having an easier time of it [with political and economic power] in the ancestral land of the Jews, this was simply too much.”
Capernaum became the more permanent base of Jesus’ ministry. This active port and fishing town offered easy access to the villages on the Sea of Galilee as well as a good place for Jesus to meet the townsfolk. The roads, improved and secured by Rome, invited multitudes to pass by on the international highway.
While most people in the first century had basic handyman skills, a master builder (tekton in Greek signifies broader skills than simply “carpenter”) like Jesus would be helpful in cutting stone, hanging doors to open and close properly, and laying a proper foundation on the basalt rock.
Cutting, carrying and carving the basalt (from Latin meaning “very hard stone”) rock required muscle, knowledge and endurance as did Jesus’ long treks, especially the fasting period in the desert. Images of Jesus as so gentle as to appear almost effeminate are inaccurate.
Wright elaborates, “Between needing the stamina and strength to walk long distances up and down rugged terrain in Galilee, Perea and to and from Jerusalem, and the strength that it takes to be a tekton, he must have been quite fit physically. We should add to that the backbone that it took to confront people in positions of authority and to buck the societal norms of his day in various ways, he must have been rather rugged on all accounts.”
Yet the message of this stalwart man was overwhelmingly one of acquiescence to Roman domination.
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, in some of his best-remembered words, urged listeners, “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” (Matt. 5:41) This was a clear reference to the authority of Roman soldiers to force subject peoples to carry their packs up to one mile – a challenging endeavor as their equipment could weigh up to 100 pounds.
“Render therefore unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” (Luke 20:25) Jesus insists regarding paying taxes to the occupier. These well-known words are consistent with the rabbinic Dina D’Malkhutah Dina (“The Law of the Land is the Law”), a Talmudic edict applied regarding taxes. Even in the face of ruinous occupation and exorbitant taxes, these famous words command payment.
It is clear even the disciples did not understand the humility and submission inherent in Jesus’ mission.
“Then He took the Twelve aside and told them, “Listen! We are going up to Jerusalem. Everything that is written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and He will be mocked, insulted, spit on; and after they flog Him, they will kill Him, and He will rise on the third day. They understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” (Luke 18:31-34)
On this final trip to Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples passed through Jericho, a city that for millennia had served as a critical point of passage to Jerusalem and other Canaanite cities on the central ridge (as in Joshua’s conquest). It is no surprise Rome had stationed the 10th Legion and a tax collector there.
Upon hearing and embracing the Gospel, publican Zachaeus indirectly referred to his illicit gains, “And if I have extorted anything from anyone, I’ll pay back four times as much!” (Luke 19:8) Zachaeus’s turnabout is consistent with Jesus’ parable of the repentant publican in the previous chapter (Luke 18:9-14)
As predicted, Jesus stood Roman trial, was condemned and sentenced to death. Jesus did not defend himself. Shocked by Jesus’ silence, Pilate exclaimed, “You’re not talking to me? Don’t You know that I have the authority to release You and the authority to crucify You?” (John 19:10)
Jesus, bridging the gap between his call to his people and the effects of the cruel occupation, responded, “You would have no authority over Me at all if it hadn’t been given you from above.” (John 19:11)
Wright surmises, “Jesus is not recognizing the independent validity of the Roman occupation. At the same time, he doesn’t go out of his way to condemn it, either. He seems to be saying that Rome has power only because the God of Israel (who is also the only true God of everyone else) gave Rome power – and if God gives it, who are we to try to overthrow it?”
Interestingly, after Jesus suffered the very Roman death of crucifixion, it was a Roman commander whose confession seems to represent an entire generation of Romans persuaded by the Galilean’s offer of forgiveness and redemption in spite of their iniquity.
“When the centurion, who was standing opposite Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, ‘This man really was God’s Son!’” (Mark 15:39)sign up to our newsletter
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>