Render to Caesar

One of the books I’ve been reading for my dissertation is Christopher Bryan’s Render to Caesar (Oxford: OUP, 2005). As well as being one of the more well-written books I’ve read so far, I’ve found it really helpful both in presenting an attractive synthesis of the New Testament’s teaching on government; and in the questions it raises about approaches to Jesus and the New Testament which interpret early Christianity as a politically subversive or revolutionary movement.

Many scholars do read early Christianity in this way – for example, Jacob Taubes talks about Paul’s letter to the Romans in terms of “a declaration of war against Rome”. Richard Horsley has written much on New Testament political theory and sees Christianity in this revolutionary sense. N.T. Wright takes much of this onboard too, perhaps motivated by a desire to (correctly) affirm the public and universal nature of Christian claims about Jesus.

Bryan does not question this reading of the New Testament as a subversive or revolutionary manifesto by appealing to an anachronistic division between secular and sacred, private and public spheres. In fact, his seventh chapter draws out precisely why this modern idea cannot apply to the New Testament or the world where Christianity began: politics, even Roman politics, had a theological and religious dimension. He does not deny that Jesus and the apostles had things to say about Caesar’s empire. Instead, Bryan questions whether those who see the political teaching of the NT as a revolutionary agenda are reading it closely enough, and sets it in the canonical context of the prophetic tradition:

“My conclusion, briefly, is that Jesus and the early Christians did indeed have a critique of the Roman superpower, a critique that was broadly in line with the entire biblical and prophetic tradition … I think that the biblical tradition challenges human power structures not by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other human power structures but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose.”
(p.9 – emphasis in original)

One of the frequent claims made in the literature on this topic is that the early Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” was meant in the sense that “Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord”. It is common to find scholars arguing that Christians were persecuted for proclaiming Jesus as “another King”. Does not Acts 17:7 bear this out? Actually, Bryan points out, this is a Jewish accusation against Paul that seems to be ignored by the Romans, and which Paul himself denies (Acts 25:8). In a world of many gods and many lords, Christians were not persecuted for proclaiming Jesus as Lord, but rather, because they refused to pay homage to the Roman divinities – Bryan adduces a wealth of ancient evidence that the most common charge against Christians was that of superstitio and impietas (pp.116-7) i.e., that they did not honour the Roman gods and thus became a “security risk” to Roman society, inviting the gods’ displeasure and wrath.

When Christians called Jesus “Lord”, “Son of God”, “Saviour”, they were not using these terms in the same sense that Romans used them as a title of Caesar. This Christian rhetoric was not a parody of imperial rhetoric or “deliberately calculated treason”, as Crossan would have it, but should actually be read against a Jewish background rather than an imperial Roman one. This seems to me to be a fair and crucial point – surely the early Christians meant rather to identify Jesus with YHWH by calling him “Lord” (κύριος – used to translate  יהוה in the LXX) rather than to identify him with Caesar.

To digress a moment, this can be seen by a look at Philippians 2. There are many Greek terms that are used in secular literature as technical terms of government and politics – Peter Oakes is quoted by Bryan as an example of someone who reads this as a subversion of imperial rhetoric. Yet the real parallel is with the Jewish background of Isaiah 45:


Isaiah 45:24

Philippians 2:10

… that to me every knee shall bend and every tongue shall swear by God … … so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord ,to the glory of God the Father.
ὁτι ἐμοὶ κάμψει πᾶν γόνυ, καὶ ἐξομολογήσηται πᾶσα γλῶσσα τὸν θεὸν ἱνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὁτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.

This passage is about identifying Jesus with YHWH’s throne rather than with Caesar’s throne.

In addition, Bryan examines the Synoptics and John against their Jewish background and concludes that Jesus was no Zealot – he did not make the cause of Jewish home rule his own. His teaching does, however, indicate a concern for God’s glory, which includes that rulers set in place by God understand their power to be a gift from God and exercise it justly. This is not about the form or structure associated with that power, nor (and I think Bryan is aiming his remarks at his adopted country of the United States here) whether or not those in power are Christian or not, but about rulers doing their God-given task of ruling. For Bryan, abdicating the responsibility or political power given to us is just as much a sin as its misuse: “If you are Caesar, you must not claim to be God, but you may no more step aside from being Caesar than a mother may abandon her children or a captain the ship” (p.128).

All in all I found this a very helpful book and Bryan’s synthesis of the New Testament’s attitudes to government very helpful. It’s also very easy to read and I’d recommend it highly!

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2 Responses to “Render to Caesar”

  1. Chris Oldfield Says:

    have you come across Terry Eagleton presents Jesus Christ?? I’d be interested to hear your take on his translations of & commentary on the gospels.

  2. Matthew Says:

    Yep I found this a helpfully provocative read too

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