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Jesus and Caesar by Warren Carter

Q. The Gospels mention Caesar many times. It is clear that Jesus knew who Caesar was and the power that he held. But did Caesar know of Jesus? Did he ever hear about him or the giant movement that he had created?

A. Correct: Jesus knew who Caesar was. But there is no evidence that Tiberius—the emperor from 14-37 C.E. when Jesus was active—knew about Jesus. Nor is it likely that he would. While the Gospels present Jesus as having a big impact on crowds, Galilee and Judea were far from Rome and of limited significance in the larger empire. And governor Pilate did not need to clear a crucifixion with the boss in Rome before proceeding.

The Gospels actually do not refer specifically to the emperor very often. The “paying the tax to Caesar” scene accounts for two thirds of the references to the emperor (12 times total: Matt 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26).  Luke 2:1 refers to a census authorized by the emperor Augustus (though it’s doubtful there was such a census). Luke 3:1 mentions the emperor Tiberius to locate John the Baptist’s ministry. The remaining four references occur during the accounts of Jesus’ death. Jesus is charged with forbidding the payment of taxes to the emperor (Luke 23:2). In John 19:12-15, the chief priests tell Pilate he is no friend of the emperor if he releases Jesus and then they declare: “we have no king but the emperor.”

While there aren’t many references to the emperor in the Gospels, they do evoke the presence and impact of the empire in lots of other ways including personnel (soldiers, tax-collectors, landowners, slaves, governors etc.) and social experiences (poverty, hunger, disease etc.).

Some later Roman writers suggest that several emperors came to know about Jesus and his followers long after his activity. Governor Pliny receives reports about Jesus-followers and writes to the emperor Trajan about what to do with them around 111-112 C.E. And Tacitus (writing around 115-117 C.E.) narrates that the emperor Nero blamed Jesus-followers for the fire in Rome in 64 C.E. Tacitus says Nero punished many, but he overstates the situation (to make Nero look bad) as there weren’t huge numbers of Jesus-followers in the 60s.

Warren Carter, "Jesus and Caesar", n.p. [cited 27 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/jesus-and-caesar

Contributors

Warren Carter

Warren Carter
Professor, Texas Christian University

Warren Carter is professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including What Does Revelation Reveal? (Abingdon, 2011), John and Empire: Initial Explorations (Continuum, 2008), and The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2006).

Title designating an emperor of the Roman Empire.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

The southern kingdom of Judah.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

Matt 22:15-22

The Question about Paying Taxes
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodi ... View more

Mark 12:13-17

The Question about Paying Taxes
13Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said.14And they came and said to him, “Teacher, ... View more

Luke 20:20-26

The Question about Paying Taxes
20So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to ... View more

Luke 2:1

The Birth of Jesus
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.

Luke 3:1

The Proclamation of John the Baptist
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of ... View more

Luke 23:2

2They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messia ... View more

John 19:12-15

12From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king ... View more

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