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Yeshua in Context » Background to Gospels, Formation of the Gospels, Gentiles, Greco-Roman Background, Son of God » Greece, Rome, Israel #2

Greece, Rome, Israel #2

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”

But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a coin, and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”

They said to him, “Caesars.”

Yeshua said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
–Mark 12:14-17

What has the gospel to do with Rome? As in the first installment about Greece and Hellenism, we’re considering Roman background in the life and message of Yeshua as well as in the time of the evangelists who wrote the gospels and their audience.

First, and very importantly, we should rid people of the notion that the Romans controlled daily life in Israel or even in Jerusalem. Many imagine Roman legions marching to and fro all the time as Israelites tried to live in peace. Rome ruled from afar and kept a small number of troops in Jerusalem and a few other places. Here is how E.P. Sanders summarizes it in The Historical Figure of Jesus:

The situation varied from time to time and from place to place . . . but Rome generally governed remotely, being content with the collection of tribute and the maintenance of stable borders; for the most part it left even these matters in the hands of loyal local rulers and leaders.

In Galilee, Rome ruled through Herod Antipas, who had his own guard. During the time of Yeshua, there was little civil unrest in Galilee. Antipas collected tribute for Rome and let the towns of Galilee exist as Jewish towns, with Jewish education and synagogues (house synagogues, perhaps).

There were three kinds of taxation: tribute to Rome, taxes to Herod Antipas, and tithes to Jerusalem. The tribute to Rome was one-fourth of the produce every second year (so 12.5%), according to Richard Horsley’s study in Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee. Add taxes to Caesar and perhaps 20% or more in tithe (depending on how tithing was interpreted and there is uncertainty) and the farmers who struggled to produce enough to survive were strapped with taxes. (And since the Temple-state in Jerusalem kept the tithes and did not redistribute them as in Torah, this was a heavy burden making Judeans rich off of Galileans).

In Judea, Rome ruled through the High Priest and his entourage of chief priests and, to a lesser degree of power, the Sanhedrin. Most of the soldiers in Jerusalem were Temple guard, not Roman soldiers. Pilate maintained a small garrison and in event of a major incident, had to call troops down from Syria (with a considerable time delay in help arriving).

How much trouble was brewing against Roman rule in Yeshua’s time? Most historians agree that older ideas about a wildly revolutionary populace in Israel has been overblown. There were a number of small movements of revolt, but the people in the land were not anywhere near the point of revolution yet. There was resentment and certain messianic or prophetic hopes could arise in small resistance groups. But the so-called Zealot party was not about overthrowing Rome at the time (they are mentioned in the gospels and possibly their zeal was for Torah and not revolution).

In Mark 12, Yeshua’s opponents attempt to trap him into either being arrested for making public statements against Rome or losing followers by sounding too supportive of Rome and taxation. Yeshua turned this around and shamed his opponents. He asked them to produce a denarius. The Roman denarius had an image of Caesar, already thought by many to be an idolatrous image due to the Roman imperial cult, and said on it pontifex maximus (highest priest) and DIVI AUG[ustus] F[ili] AUGUSTUS (son of the deified Augustus, see Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 423). The coin, like the one used for the Temple tax, was idolatrous. Pharisees would normally not carry such a coin and Galileans definitely not.

What about the influence of Rome on the gospels at the time they were written, in the lives of the evangelists and their readers? The influence of Rome on the gospels is felt much more here.

First, the gospels and other literature of the early Yeshua-movement could circulate between cities precisely because of Rome. Roman roads and imperial order made for what some have called the Roman internet. That is, people would send messages from city to city with travelers on the roads. Copies of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John would have started circulating, so that many people could read them. Richard Bauckham edited a collection of essays all about the nature of circulating documents and how this should affect our view of the gospels in The Gospels for All Christians.

The major point for us in this is that we should not assume each gospel was written for a narrow audience. Some have greatly exaggerated the idea of a Matthean school of Jewish-Christians and a Johannine school with its own ideas about who Yeshua was. Some wish to depict the early Yeshua communities as greatly divided in matters of faith. Yet the circulation patterns of letters and documents on the Roman “internet” suggests a much closer communication between believers in different cities.

Finally, the Imperial Cult, the worship of the Roman emperors (or of their genius, as it was termed then) is a subject worth greater study. The term “Son of God” in the gospels cannot be read without keeping in mind it was a term used for Augustus and other Caesars, usually after they died. The images of Yeshua in the gospels as a highly exalted figure have to be read as especially important for the evangelists writing in the late first century, as the movement spread outside of Israel. The Roman cry “Caesar is Lord” was met with the cry “Yeshua is Lord.”

As Yeshua himself said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but to God the things that are God’s.”

Read Part 3, “Greece, Rome, Israel #3.”

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Filed under: Background to Gospels, Formation of the Gospels, Gentiles, Greco-Roman Background, Son of God

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