Sunday, 12 April 2009

Render Unto Caesar

Denarius of TiberiusEaster (as previously in this blog) calls for a biblical theme. As I have been thinking about Roman coins recently, what better theme to choose than the "Render Unto Caesar" story.

The story will be well known to you. It is Passover in Jerusalem, and Jesus is at the Temple. His enemies seek to entrap him with an unanswerable riddle: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" They know (as does Jesus) that either a "yes" or a "no" will be fatal, guaranteeing to alienate, on the one hand, the oppressed Jews, on the other, the Roman oppressors. But Jesus takes a third path.

"Bring me a coin and let me look at it", says He. And then: "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"

It is almost certain that the coin He held in his hand was a denarius of the emperor Tiberius (r. AD 14-37), the standard silver coin of the Roman empire (pictured above). The coin legend reads TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS, "Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus, emperor".

Of course, as with many parables and tales, we cannot be sure what precise point Jesus was making. Is Jesus simply separating the emperor's sphere of authority from God's? But remember: the Jews abhorred imperial imagery, so there may have been an implied exhortation to reject the coin with its idolatrous message. Blasphemous, too, with its claim of divinity for the first Roman emperor (Augustus) and, by extension, for his kin (Tiberius). The coin was a reminder of the imperial cult, which conflicted with the precepts of both Judaism and Christianity.

Most simply, Jesus reminds his listeners that the coin should be returned to the man whose face it bears. (And likewise, humans, made in the likeness of God, should be reserved for Him? For, as Tertullian says, what will be God's, if all things are Caesar's?)