“Give unto Caesar”: Jesus, the Zealots and the Imago Dei

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The retorts of Hillel and Jesus exemplify innovative developments in Jewish thought during the Second Temple period, developments that were established on the biblical notion that man was created in the image of God—Imago Dei (Gen. 1:27).

One of the charges brought by the high priest, Caiaphas, and his retinue, against Jesus was that he had encouraged the people not to pay taxes to Rome (Luke 23:2). It seems that the episode which lay behind this false charge was an exchange between the chief priests and Jesus a few days earlier in the Temple precincts (Luke 20:20-26; Mark 12:13-17; Matt. 22:15-22).

Through his Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-19; Mark 12:1-12; Matt. 21:33-46), Jesus had warned the leadership of the Temple of the inevitable consequences of their abuses of power. Those in authority recognized the thinly veiled critique. However, they could not move openly against Jesus because of his popularity among the crowds of Jerusalem; they “tried to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people” (Luke 20:19; cf. 22:53; Acts 5:26).

Instead, the chief priests attempted to trip Jesus up by questioning him in public concerning the obligation to pay taxes to the Roman Empire. These taxes were a bitter pill for the Jewish nation to swallow. They represented the loss of freedom and subjugation to a pagan nation. Josephus reports that only a few years earlier, a certain Judah of Gamala (Acts 5:37) had instigated an uprising in the Galilee in reaction to the census for taxation initiated by Quirinius, the governor of Coele-Syria (cf. Luke 2:2):

(Judah) incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters, after having God for their lord (War 2.118).

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Comments 1

  1. I felt, after reading the article, that it has an abrupt ending. Needs to discuss something more on the meaning of Jesus’ reply to the question. Yet very thought provoking article.

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  • R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the New York City campus of Nyack College. A member and past director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Notley earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University (1993).…
    [Read more about author]

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