“Live free or die,” declared John Stark, general in the Revolutionary War and native of New Hampshire. A similar motto might have rallied many first century Jews against the Roman imperial expansion. Perhaps the disciples reflect this attitude in their question to Jesus: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) But what does it mean to be free? How did Jesus’s words and actions about the Kingdom of God define and shape the apostolic response to the Roman Empire? How might American Christians today define freedom?
I reflected recently on these questions while listening to a sermon by a Thai pastor. In a parenthetical remark during his exposition of Scripture, he noted how highly he valued Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, an upright man. This ruler is good to the Thai people, he affirmed, while the politicians are leading the country in unhelpful directions. I realized that I had never seriously thought of monarchy as better than democratic governance; even more, I had unwittingly transposed that assumption onto other Christians today. The Thai pastor’s message raised in a new way the issues surrounding politics and religion in Jesus’s day, and how to make sense of them in our own.
To understand Jesus’s teachings in light of first century politics, we must sketch briefly the previous hundred years of Jewish history. In 63 B.C., the Roman general Pompey took Jerusalem and the Temple after a short battle. With this action, Rome defeated the Jewish dynasty of the Hasmoneans, but retained as high priest the former Hasmonean king, John Hyrcanus II. The first century A.D. Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that Pompey entered the Holy Place of the Temple, a place reserved only for the high priests. Pompey noted its golden table, candlestick, pouring vessels, spices, and 2,000 talents of sacred money, but he did not take anything. Indeed, he had the priests cleanse the Temple the following day since his presence had rendered the Temple unclean. A contemporary psalm laments this event, and concludes that Pompey’s victory was judgment for the sins committed by the sons and daughters of Jerusalem: “Gentile foreigners went up to your place of sacrifice; they arrogantly trampled [it] with their sandals” (Psalms of Solomon 2:2). The interpretations to this single incident range from divine punishment through the hands of gentiles (Psalms of Solomon) to approval of Pompey’s virtue in refraining from plundering the Temple (Josephus), with the middling position held by the Hasmonean high priest willing to accommodate and work with the Roman Senate and generals. A fourth option—armed revolt—grew steadily in the first century A.D., culminating in the First Revolt (66-70 A.D.). Into this simmering political cauldron, Jesus spoke the message of the Kingdom of God. One of Jesus’s most frequently quoted sayings is this: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25). This answer was given to a question about paying taxes to Rome. The Jewish leaders tried to catch Jesus, for they knew that if he answered “yes” to their question, he would be seen as a collaborator with Rome. But if he said “no,” he could be charged with sedition and executed.
Rather than giving a simple answer, Jesus reframes the assumptions underpinning their question. He does so by highlighting the purposes of civil government under the wider purposes of God. He proves his point by asking to see a coin. Someone produces a silver imperial denarius that displays on one side the image of Emperor Tiberius (son of the divine Augustus) and on the other perhaps the image of the Empress Livia, representing deified Roma. The poll tax levied by Rome on its provinces, Jesus answers, could be paid by returning to Rome that which bears its mark. Even more, those who sought to ensnare Jesus are caught themselves: Jews would lay down their lives rather than have a Roman standard bearing the Emperor’s image paraded through Jerusalem, but these leaders hold an image of the Emperor in their hands. Again, the Jewish leaders also pay the poll tax—and thus Jesus’s views on this matter align with their own. Both reject the growing nationalistic fervour that would ultimately incite armed rebellion against Rome in 66 A.D.
In supporting the payment of taxes, Jesus is not giving his stamp of approval on the social or political status quo. The second half of Jesus’s statement about giving to God what is rightfully God’s undercuts the Jewish leadership’s collusion with Rome and their satisfaction with the status quo which has enriched their own pockets. Jesus’s prophetic call on behalf of the poor rings true down to our own situation, and is especially disconcerting to Western Christians who have much to gain (humanly speaking) by retaining the existing state of affairs in the global economy.
In deciphering Jesus’s intentions in his call to give to God what is due God, perhaps it is easier to say what Jesus does not mean. He is not endorsing blind obedience to government; no Jew would agree to offer sacrifices to the imperial cult or any pagan deity, no matter what orders were given by a Roman authority. Again, Jesus is not suggesting that he will set up a rival government based on his leadership. He says as much to the Roman governor Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Finally, he is not implying that his teachings are only useful in the personal, spiritual realm. Our modern “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” with its convictions that God wants us to be happy and nice to others and will help us with our personal problems, was not yet formulated (see Christian Smith’s book, Soul Searching, for a discussion of this modern tendency).
Everyone in the first century, Jew and gentile alike, experienced the intertwining connections of things religious and things political. The centre of Jewish political power was the Jerusalem Temple, controlled by priests and the Sanhedrin. The seat of Roman political power was held by an Emperor who claimed to be son of god. Assertions of authority were tightly tied to beliefs in divine approval. For Jesus, the political/religious question is answered in his teachings on the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is political inasmuch as it is communal—it is made up of citizens, and it has a leader, namely Jesus. It is religious in that it is from God and for God. The Kingdom’s citizens are the poor, the dispossessed, the repentant. From this tangible community of believers flows God’s justice and peace that influences the wider environment.
Much as a stone tossed into a pond produces ever-increasing ripples outward, the community’s acts of service engage in ever widening circles of influence. To start, the local church offers aid to its own members. This might be a listening ear, sympathetic heart, or open wallet. Often such care opens the church’s eyes to similar situations and problems faced in their local communities, and it engages in direct political and social involvement on behalf of the needy or dispossessed. Yet political involvement carries a danger as well, one exhibited by the Jewish leaders in the encounter with Jesus noted above. We are susceptible to confusing our ideological convictions and our personal wellbeing as God’s design and program. Often we rationalize using the world’s approaches to gaining power and influence in the name of pursuing the aims of God. Christians today are tempted to label Jesus’s teachings as left- or right-wing, instead of identifying themselves as citizens of heaven, aliens and strangers who seek first God’s Kingdom.
The earliest believers located their identity as citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) as they negotiated the imperial claims of Rome. The Book of Acts tells us that the Apostle Paul used his status as a Roman citizen to request an audience with the Emperor in an effort to defend himself against charges levelled by some Jewish leaders (Acts 25:10-12). Does this action imply approval of the imperial system? A simple “yes” would over-read the evidence. A more nuanced answer takes into account Paul’s belief that while government in itself is beneficial for the sustaining of civic society (Romans 13:1-7), aspects of his government’s claims are based on direct rejection of divine will and moral goodness.
This latter point—Paul’s critique of imperial Rome—has taken centre stage in Pauline studies recently. Two opposing views dominate the scholarly landscape. On one side are those who advocate the view that Paul speaks implicitly and covertly against the Roman Empire, especially against the Roman imperial cult, with its claim that Caesar is Lord, Saviour, and son of god. This position suggests that when Paul declares, “Jesus is Lord,” he implies that Caesar is not (1 Corinthians 8:6, Philippians 2:11). This snappy phrase reflects nicely the sense of tension that followers of Jesus would have felt towards the imperial cult, part of the paganism that many of these new believers recently left behind. However, we have no direct evidence in his letters that Paul wants his readers to draw such an inference; moreover, we have several places where Paul speaks the gospel of Christ boldly to city and imperial powers (Philippians 1:12-14; Acts 17:3-9).
The better argument, in my view, promotes the theory that Paul speaks directly and overtly against the powers of paganism and human wisdom that stood against the claims of Jewish monotheism and the declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. Paul does not single out the Roman imperial cult or Caesar himself to distinguish Jesus’s teachings and salvation. Instead, he views Rome and its claims of imperial dominance as one more example of hubris, the ubiquitous human condition that triggers the downfall of governments and empires throughout history.
The apostle Peter strikes a similar stance to Paul. He asks that his readers submit to and honour the emperor and governors (1 Peter 2:13-17). These words might suggest subservience to the ruling class, were it not for his previous statement defining those who follow Christ. Peter describes followers of Jesus as chosen and royal, a holy nation, and the people of God (2:9-10). It is from this position that a believer honours those who enforce the laws of the land and punish those who disobey. Moreover, in assigning “royal” status to slaves and by speaking directly to wives, Peter bestows a dignity not granted by the wider gentile culture (2:18-3:6). Additionally, Peter imagines that a believer’s submission will have the effect of changing the status quo; slaves and wives have agency and God acts through them to critique the wider social world.
Jews in the century before Christ, and Christians in the first century A.D., lived under monarchial or imperial governments. They believed a good king established and enforced fair laws and taxation and was not given to personal excesses at the expense of his subjects. No early Christian hoped to shape Roman society to be “Christian” and did not yearn for representative democracy or a voice in policy making. They desired the ruler to act with justice and maintain peace, creating a stable social context for families and villages to flourish. These values and expectations arose not from Roman propaganda articulated in part in the imperial cult, but derived from God’s expectations and Jesus’s teachings.
Christians sought to implement a vision of human interaction and engagement that went beyond the vision laid out by the Roman Empire. These communities pledged to honour each individual with equal dignity. They did not seek to put Jesus of Nazareth on Caesar’s throne in Rome, nor did they imagine a circumscribed kingdom over a limited number of people groups; rather they sought to declare Jesus as King over all powers and principalities. The social ramifications of this theological claim are profound, and Luke describes in Acts that certain pagan townsfolk saw this, and violently opposed it (for more on this, see C. Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down). The Christian vision does not seek to replace one set of rituals (pagan) for another (Christian), but reframe the entire worldview such that it is not magic spells and imperial armies that are the currency, but rather forgiveness of sins, God’s love, and love of neighbour to create human thriving. The first century believers had a vision not for a better way of life, but the real, true way of life under God and the Messiah, Jesus.
In the following centuries, Christians in the Roman Empire sought to live into their calling. Ironically, one way they testified to this vision of new life was by dying a martyr’s death. Sporadic outbreaks of violence against Christians led to courageous testimonies countering the asserted dominance of the Empire, whose power came from the threat of personal harm and death. Christians would accept torture and death rather than worship the Emperor, as did Jews centuries earlier when faced with denying the Law (2 Maccabees 7). In this they denied ultimate power to the State, even as they submitted to the State’s lethal use of force.
In about 200 A.D., a Christian named Perpetua was brought before a Roman tribunal who demanded that she make a sacrifice to the Emperor. She responded, “I am a Christian.” She and others with her were sentenced to the beasts, and confined in a dungeon until the fateful day. While in prison she kept a diary and recorded several visions, including one that occurred the day before she went into the stadium. She writes that she saw herself fighting in the arena, and then, “I went to the gladiator trainer, and I took the branch. And he kissed me and he said to me: ‘Daughter, peace be with you.’ And I began to walk in triumph to the Gate of Life. And then I woke up. And I knew that I was going to fight with the devil and not with the beasts; but I knew that victory was to be mine.” (See Passion of Perpetua and Felicity 10.12-14, translation Thomas J. Heffernan.)
Another opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the good news came in the form of responses to two virulent epidemics. In 165 A.D., what many believe was a smallpox outbreak devastated the Empire. Over the next fifteen years, approximately a quarter to a third of the entire population died. In less than one hundred years, a second epidemic, perhaps measles, ravaged city and countryside alike. The pagan priests had no words of hope from their gods in the midst of this pervasive suffering, nor did they offer any reasons to aid those in distress. The Christians confessed that God promised life eternal to the faithful. Moreover, in providing food and drink to those too weak to care for themselves, Christians lived out Jesus’s words: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Matthew 25:35-40). Many Christians ministered directly to the sick and dying, often perishing in their efforts to save others. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in North Africa, wrote in circa 252 A.D. that “pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are healthy tend the sick, whether relations affectionately love their kindred, whether masters pity their languishing servants, whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients. . . . These are trainings for us [Christians], not deaths; they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown” (see Mortality). Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, wrote an Easter letter a decade later, commending those believers who had died during their care for the ill, “heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ . . . drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains” (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.22).
And not only during epidemics did Christians work with the needy. For example, in 362 A.D. the pagan Emperor Julian wrote to Arsacius, high priest of Galatia, expressing frustration at the failure of the pagan charities to match (or even come close to) the benevolence shown by the Christians who cared for the poor and the stranger. Julian laments, “the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us” (Epistle 22—see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity).
Today’s church in the United States reads the ancient witness with several assumptions about what are the ideal goods for society: freedom, love of others, and choice. Furthermore, it often assumes that in pursuing these ideals, we are returning to the principles of our country’s founders. These same traits can be isolated in the New Testament, but with important variations.
Looking first at the concept of freedom: In the first century, Jews fought each other over whether freedom should be understood in a nationalistic sense. Could one fulfill one’s identity as the Jewish people—be a Jew in the fullest sense—and fulfill the Law in the deepest way, under foreign, pagan rule? Today, because religion is often defined as personal, private convictions, we think of freedom as having independence to make up our own minds and do our own thing. Freedom means minimal entailments and responsibilities to society.
This independence sometimes runs counter to the second ideal, which is love of neighbour. In this we mean that all people have the same dignity of person, and those who have more resources, free time, and influence should use that excess to benefit the society around them—either by supporting institutions such as their local church or para-church organization, or by volunteering in community service.
Given these two competing ideals, we promote choice as that which preserves freedom, but which can be guided by love of others. The right to vote one’s conscience, the belief that each person should express their opinions and have a say in the running of their government, are seen as outgrowths of civic duty developed from being a good neighbour. Two secondary principles are joined with the ideal of choice: tolerance and diversity. These values on the surface seem consistent with the conviction to love others. However, tolerance itself presupposes higher values that govern the posture of tolerance. We would not tolerate a university chair for studies in the Practice of Racial Hierarchies, in a department dedicated to the promotion of Nazism, because of a higher value that decries racism. Christians today can find themselves disagreeing with the deeper values that support some expressions of tolerance, and thus bear the label of intolerant. In point of fact, intolerance is not the issue; rather the particular underlying value defining what should be tolerated is precisely what is questioned.
The ideal of choice in society has also been limited today by a shift to viewing all public issues through the lens of politics. In his book To Change the World, James Davidson Hunter argues that instead of Christians speaking into a public conversation, they are reduced to engaging society through politics. That is, the state defines culture, religion, even family. With such reductionism comes a paradoxical need for power, to use the state and its methods to further Christian aims. Often this means valuing rhetoric over substance, celebrity over servanthood, and results over faithful service. But such values skew the new and utterly different vision Jesus brings to human flourishing—namely that to be truly human, to be truly in community, one voluntarily loses one’s life, one’s claims to power, status, and rights, so as to grab hold of a new vision inaugurated in Christ’s victory over sin and death.
The ultimate problem with Christians centring the public debate in the realm of politics is that it locates the issues in the present age. But Christ’s resurrection should direct the Christian’s vision not to the horizon line offered by this age, but beyond to the eschaton, the new age secured by God raising Christ from the dead. With this renewed vision comes both the necessary distrust of human power and the confident hope that justice in the truest sense will prevail.