Friday, July 21, 2006

Render unto Caesar [nothing]

In response to the recent story that Kent Hovind has committed tax fraud, many bloggers have criticized him for not "Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." I'm here to try to set the record straight on that quote and its use here (based on my favored historical interpretation).

First, what the Bible says, in full:

"Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes [KJV tribute] to Caesar, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites? Show Me the money for the tax." And they brought Him a coin. And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar's." Then He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:17-21 RSV)

To add a bit more context, "tribute" refers to the Temple tax that all Jewish men over 20 were required to pay. In contrast to Roman tax, this tribute had to be paid using the Jewish half-Shekel (one of their coins)1. So, going back to what Jesus said, it essentially means "Pay the government with the government's money, and the temple with the temple's money." To me, this sounds like the obfuscation of a politician in response to a direct question. He completely avoided the issue of whether they should be paying money at all, and instead told him which coin they should use if they are paying. If one does not wish to pay, they might infer from this that all they have to do is keep all their money in Jewish coins.

So, Hovind might actually have been making a reasonable interpretation of this passage in his case. If he firmly believes that all his money is the church's money, then a strict interpretation of the passage would tell him that none of that money is due to "Caesar."

I could stop there, but whenever I'm faced with a politician obfuscating in the face of a question, I just feel I have to find out how they really feel. So, what did Jesus really believe?

In this era, there was a repeated trend for the rise of Jewish zealots, generally from somewhat outside conventional society. The goal of most of them was to overthrow Rome by violent means and reestablish the Jewish empire. They firmly believed that Rome had no right to govern them. From information gleaned from the Dead Sea scrolls, we have a rough idea of how these zealots acted. When you compare it to how the Bible describes the activities of John the Baptist, there are striking similarities. John is also said to be the forerunner of Jesus by Christians (and also a relative of his by some others). So, was Jesus one of these Zealots, too?

According to the church, Jesus was different and advocated a peaceful revolution (I'll explore this issue a lot more in a future post). A revolution was still a revolution, however, which was why the Romans had him executed. (I should emphasize here, just because so many people get it wrong, the Jews were not to blame.)

However, Jesus wasn't strictly non-violent. Straight from the Bible:

"And they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the Temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the Temple, and He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and He would not allow any one to carry anything through the Temple. And He taught, and said to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." (Mark 11:15-17 RSV)


The church explains these actions by saying that he was driven to it because he was so enraged by the corruption of the money-changers and other people there1. Even granting them that, it still shows that he could be driven to violence against the state. What happened to his habit of responding to the worst in humans with pithy, deep quotes like "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone"?

So consistency isn't the Bible's forté (again, more on this in a future post). For now, I'll just leave the alternate interpretation as a possibility. If Jesus was one of these zealots, then he would likely have believed that nothing was due to Rome. His line might even be interpreted to mean "Why are you using these coins at all? Reject Caesar's coin and only use the temple's."

15 comments:

Bronze Dog said...

I'll make a note not to use that particular expression anymore.

"Caesar demands a building permit!" is still funny, though.

Babbler said...

So Jesus was being evasive when asked a direct question. I think we know where the Bush Administration gets its inspiration for it press conference.

That the only phrase in the Bible (and isn't in common usage) in knew about, since it was in a book given to my by some relatives.

Big Al said...

The other point was that with the picture of Caesar,on the coin it could not be taken into the temple, because of the "Graven Image". By the way, what about T. Huxley"s view that he didn't die on the cross? He was drugged and taken down quickly, the soldiers were bribed, and were playing for the bribe money, not the clothing, later he shows up and exhibits his scars.

Helena Constantine said...

I 'm very sympathetic to the skeptic view point, so misconsture me as some kind of religious fanatic. I'm also a Classics professor. These days I work mostly on late Antiuity, but my original training was as a New Testament historian. I won't go into any long winded detail, but will just ask you to stop writing on this topic (contrary to your announced plans). It was so obvious that you are out of touch with New Testament scholarship that it was just embarassing to read. For a start, no serious scholar would attribute that saying to Jesus, rather than a much later stratum of composition. Secondly you present the idea that the Jesus' movement might have been in some way comaprable to the Zealot movment as if it were some orginal masterstroke of your own, instead of something that has been recognized since the beginning of scientific investigation of the New Testament about 150 years ago. Then you cite the DSS as a source for our knowldge of Zealotry...well I won't go on.

Thursday said...

Helena -

If you could provide some sources, that would be great! I'd be nice if you took a gentler tone, too - skeptics tend to poke at things first, then study them. If you can help, do so; if you can't, then, well, don't.

There's no call for:
"[...]you present the idea [...] as if it were some orginal masterstroke of your own [...]"
and other such snarkiness just yet. Wait until a good argument gets going first!

Secondly, by your comment there are no preachers who are serious scholars of the New Testament, as the three (Matt, Mark and Lucky) attributions in the King James for the phrase are given to Jesus. That's what you will encounter if you ask anyone (other than a biblical scholar or most skeptics) who said "Render unto Ceasar..." That's the folks who are walking around right now interpreting the bible for our own good, and that's the reality of who we deal with. I'll place you whatever bet you want that Mr. Hovind won't try the excuse: "Well, it wasn't really what Jesus said..."

It would be nice if the religious folks WERE actual scholars, but that ain't who's making policy right now.

Again, if you could point out some good source books or on-line references for the curious, that would be a help. Rating them on complexity would be of use, too.

Infophile said...

Helena,

I'm not trying to correct modern scholarly investigation of the New Testament here; it's the public perception I'm trying to correct.

I won't go into any long winded detail, but will just ask you to stop writing on this topic (contrary to your announced plans).

I have an audience here who is learning from this. Why are you asking me to stop, rather than working with me to ensure that they learn correct information?

It was so obvious that you are out of touch with New Testament scholarship that it was just embarassing to read.

There's a lot I could say to this, but I'll go with the fact that it sounds like Ivory Tower syndrome. Historical analysis is not limited to those who devote their careers to it. I don't go and disparage everyone who makes a point using Newtonian Mechanics by saying that they're out of touch and Relativistic Mechanics have completely usurped it.

For a start, no serious scholar would attribute that saying to Jesus, rather than a much later stratum of composition.

Yes, I agree that most of the Bible is actually fables written after the fact, and only a little of it is based in reality. But my target audience here isn't serious scholars; it's the laymen. And most laymen interpret this as the Bible simply saying that Jesus said this.

Secondly you present the idea that the Jesus' movement might have been in some way comaprable to the Zealot movment as if it were some orginal masterstroke of your own, instead of something that has been recognized since the beginning of scientific investigation of the New Testament about 150 years ago.

Granted, I didn't cite any other source that claims this, but that doesn't mean I'm trying to claim the idea as originally my own. I preferred to show the evidence leading up to this assertion rather than just jump to it.

Then you cite the DSS as a source for our knowldge of Zealotry...well I won't go on.

Admittedly, I'm using a secondary source for this rather than the scrolls themselves, and it could be mistaken.

Also, I have to note that it seems odd that a Classics professor wouldn't provide any helpful links or evidence. Maybe my recent post, How to Sound Reliable would be worth a read.

Foxinhand said...

It easier to just dive in and say what you want without using proper 'scholarship'.

Maybe you should have said:
"Render unto Caesar" the saying many consider is attributable to the mythical Jesus. :-)

Infophile said...

It looks like I'd accidentally blocked off anonymous commenting while fooling around with settings, so I've turned it back on now. Andrew Wolgemuth sent in this comment by e-mail:

Hi, Bryan.

Without going to to trouble of looking up references or anything, I recall studying a different interpretation of that story (I'd have commented, but you only allow comments from other Bloggers.)

From what I've read, it seems that the Jews didn't have any real objection to paying a tax to secular civil authorities. They'd been doing that for a long time before the Roman occupation. They did, however, have a BIG problem with the requirement to pay in Roman coinage. Not only were the coins graven images of Caesar, but they also bore the word 'DIVUS' -- 'divine'. To some, the use of Roman coins was seen as idolatry and blasphemy, since the coins proclaimed that Caesar was God.

So when this contentious issue is brought before Jesus by the temple authorities, the trap lies in their expecting him to take a Zealot position, and declare the use of Roman coins unlawful, thereby giving him what they need to have him arrested for sedition. Instead, by saying to use the correct coins for the civil and the temple tax, he is taking the orthodox position that, since the coins are Caesar's the idolatry is also Caesar's, and there's no idolatry in using them as required.

This ruling would have severely damaged his support from the Zealots, but probably not have done all that much to mollify the Sanhedrin, given his other more contentious views.


That's a very interesting interpretation of it as well (I hesitate to say it's correct without seeing some good references, though).

If we go along with this, then the meaning still doesn't coincide with the modern interpretation. It's pretty close to the "Use the right coinage" interpretation I used, but the difference is the question here. Rather than this quote answering the question "Is it alright to pay taxes?" it answers the question "Is it alright to use blasphemous money to pay taxes?"

Of course, who's to say he really meant that at all? He could have simply been saying that so that they wouldn't have an excuse to arrest him (though you'd have to agree that he really wasn't divine and unafraid of death in this case). If this was the case, this quote still does serve the purpose of being just vague enough that his followers could interpret it as they wished. If he wanted to be clear, a simple "Yes" would have sufficed.

Anonymous said...

Geez louis- Is this some sort of unbelievers/atheist's blog? If so, you guys are coming out of the woodwork.

Anonymous said...

Helena Constantine who describes herself as also a Classics professor says, "I won't go into any long winded detail, but will just ask you to stop writing on this topic".
It is always nice to ask people to stop writing, too many people write too much anyway :). But I could not find Professor Helena Constantine on Google and there seem to be no books by her available from Amazon.com
Surely she has SOME basis for the authority she wishes to wield?

Anonymous said...

And this is the real reason why our money says "In God We Trust"

MBG said...

Jewish scripture says man was created in the image of God. So, if Caesar gets coins because his image is on it, God gets man.

Anonymous said...

You do greatly err--when you said the Jews were not responsible for Jesus' death--He Himself said, ". . . he that delivers me unto you (Pilate) has the greater sin." John 19:11. Since you make such a grievous error, I find I can't trust any of your other arguments

Infophile said...

You do greatly err--when you imply Pilate is a Jew. Since you make such a grievous error, I find I can't trust you have two neurons to rub together.

Anonymous said...

Point for consideration: render also means to reduce, convert, or melt down (fat) by heating. In Jesus' time, many roman coins were in circulation that were not pure gold, hence the money changers who melted gold to produce temple coins.

As Rome advanced, they created Roman coins made of other metals, coated in gold but of the same weight and size as pure gold in trade. The only way to tell if a coin was pure gold was by rendering or melting it down.

Could Jesus have been telling them to melt down Caesar's gold and give it back to him?

Jesus doesn't say to "give" back Caesar's gold and he is quoted in the bible using the word "give" at other times. If he meant give or return would he not have used this precise word?

So if the word 'render' in this context means to 'melt down' the gold belonging to Caesar and keep the gold which is God's then the entire meaning of this quote changes.

If the modern interpretation of this one word is a possibility as meaning 'melting down', then Jesus is not saying; 'pay your taxes' he is actually giving instruction to melt down the Roman gold and send it back to Caesar in whatever form it turns out to be after smelting.

The temple gold which is blessed and pure is the only gold that was allowed in temple.