Easter without Hindsight: The Romans and the Price of Rebellion
The Priests in the Temple were in a quandary. If they wanted to get rid of Jeshua they had to do so legally. Jeshua was seen by many Jewish people as messiah, even if fewer understood how Jeshua was interpreting the word. The Romans would have little interest in prosecuting a Jew for upsetting the Jewish priests. They viewed religion (apart from worship of the Emperor, which was compulsory) as a private activity that didn’t (and shouldn’t) impact on business in the secular world.
Their views came from, among others, the Hellenic philosophers like Socrates and Plato, who still drove the thought-world of much of the Mediterranean basin. Atheism, one might say, is an ancient religion with very ancient roots.
The only people who did executions were the Romans, so the priests had to build a case against Jeshua that the Romans would take seriously. Since most Jews viewed messiah as someone who would oppose Roman rule they decided to get Jeshua to do something that, to the Romans, amounted to sedition.
As Jeshua was in the Temple courts teaching (and repeatedly winding up the authorities) he was asked (Mt 22:15-22, Mk 12:13-7, Lk 20:20-6) whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar. This simple and innocent sounding question would force Jeshua to demonstrate he was messiah in a way the Romans would take action against. Publically calling for a boycott of Roman tax was sedition and normally punished by crucifixion. There were crosses all over Judea at that time. Hanging upon them, dead or dying, were revolutionaries’ who had opposed Caesar and his taxes.
Or Jeshua could renounce his claim to be messiah by supporting Roman taxes. That would destroy his credibility in the eyes of the Jews. Either way the priests would be content. His answer is widely known and also widely misunderstood.
“Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”.
He had set up his reply by examining the coins concerned. They were Roman coins and bore the Emperor’s image and inscription. He was effectively telling the Jews to pay Caesar in his own coin. Any Romans interested enough to be listening (and there were probably a few Roman spies keeping an eye on the celebrity rabbi) would have thought nothing of the phrase.
The Jews on the other hand would have heard an echo of the Maccabee revolt: (I Maccabees 2:68) “Pay back the Gentiles in full, and heed what the law commands!”. To Jewish ears that was a call to rebellion.
Jeshua, conscious of the trap the priests had laid for him, had managed to be heard as messiah by the Jews and as obedient by the Romans.
There was a twist for the priests too. They had subverted the Temple from its true godly purpose. Jeshua calls on them, once again, to give the Temple back to God.