An Acerbic Take on the “Render Unto Caesar” Koan

Thanks to the magic of Google Books, I stumbled on A Plain Commentary on The First Gospel by An Agnostic (). The author, who remains anonymous (or at least I haven’t figured out who it was), has a pleasantly acerbic take on the “Render Unto Caesar” koan:

15 ¶ Then went the Pharisees, and took council how they might entangle him in his talk.

Our author here gives us a very naive statement. The Pharisees were so little impressed with what they had heard Jesus say, were so entirely unsuspicious that his wisdom was superhuman, that they had a debate amongst themselves “how they might entangle him in his talk.” And they decided that they would — evidently believing that they could — thus entangle Jesus. His previous replies, so far from awing these Pharisees by their manifest supernatural power and wisdom, can hardly have struck them as very astute or profound even, if they thought or hoped that they could entangle or perplex jesus with such a very old-fashioned “difficulty” as the one they took steps to propound to him.

16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.

To carry out this purpose the Pharisees sent some of their disciples together with the Herodians to submit to Jesus the “entangling” question given in the next verse. Who or what these Herodians were is not known. Though we possess most voluminous and minutely detailed accounts of the Jewish history and of the Jewish affairs of this period in secular history, no mention can be found of Herodians, whose existence is known to these Gospels alone.

Never surely was a nation so distracted with rival sects as “my people Israel.” And with the Jews these diversities were not simply of a philosophical and merely contemplative kind, such as prevailed in Greece and other ancient nations; they were of such a nature as from their inevitable practical bearings to place men in a position of acute hostility to each other.

The mention of a body so obscure and unknown as the Herodians serves to strongly bring to mind again the conspicuous absence from these Gospels of that great Jewish sect whose existence and whose importance are so shown to us in secular history — the Essenes: one of the chief sects of the Jews. Their suppression in these Gospels is complete. Never once do we hear of any of the Essenes waiting upon Jesus, though the resemblance, nay the identity, of many of his own teachings with theirs is complete, often startlingly so. Jesus, of course, knew all about the Essenes, and so, we do not hesitate to assert, did our author and the authors of the other Gospels. The non-mention of Essenism in these Gospels is a problem not difficult to solve. The Essenes had anticipated and already taught too many of the better portions of Jesus’ teachings to be altogether agreeable to his biographers.

When these disciples of the Pharisees and these Herodians reached Jesus they began the object of their errand by paying him a very long and very great compliment. There was nothing specially deferential in the term teacher, or master, as it is here given, with which these men saluted Jesus; but what they proceeded to add, that Jesus was true and taught the way of God in truth, and that he cared not for any man nor regarded the person of men, was a piece of homage indeed, which, however, the errand of these men shows us must be taken largely, if not entirely, in an ironical sense; as, in short, a piece of raillery. This salutation is so unlike the usual accostings of Jesus by the Pharisees that we may probably set it down to their Herodian colleagues, of whose principles we have no knowledge.

17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not?

Eighteen centuries and a half ago when this conversation took place, Judea was a subjugated country. The Romans had conquered it, made it part of their Empire, and unquestionably governed it in many respects in a harsh and overbearing manner. How repugnant, how painful, such a state of things must have been to every patriotic Jew is very evident, and is attested by the many efforts made to throw off the galling Roman yoke.

Is it right to obey a foreign conqueror, or should he be resisted and freedom and self-government restored? This is a question and a practical problem that has abounded in human annals both before and since the time of Jesus. And it is a question which the best of men have always answered, and the enlightened portion of the human race would now unanimously answer, to the effect that foreign conquest must be resisted and self-government re-asserted.

Whatever we may think of the immediate purpose with which the question was submitted to Jesus, the question itself was in every respect a most serious and grave one; and in many minds a most active and burning one. To ask Jesus his decision on this momentous question was in itself a very natural and proper thing. Indeed, as put to Jesus, the inquiry had a peculiar appropriateness, for was he not King of Jerusalem and son of David? And it is quite possible some of these interviewers, though unaware of the immaculate conception and of Joseph’s royal lineage, may have heard Jesus accosted as son of David when entering Jerusalem a few days previously.

They therefore ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar or not?” “What thinkest thou?”

18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?

Our author assures us that Jesus “perceived their wickedness.” That to submit a thorny question to an opponent is wickedness, is evidently a matter of opinion, concerning which we are not able to agree with our author’s view. That Jesus perceived the purpose with which these men put the question before him is believable enough, for it was as palpable as anything could possibly be. And the comments and laudations indulged in on this verse by some commentators to the effect that the divine searcher of hearts could read the thoughts and purposes of these enemies are nothing short of ludicrous as applied to something so self-evident.

“Why tempt ye me?” As we have seen throughout this Gospel, inquiries put to Jesus are habitually denominated temptings. It is not necessary to inquire what was meant by the term; what degree of guilt or impropriety was considered to exist in questioning Jesus. For it is evident he was under no obligation to answer the questions put to him. In the case now before us, for example, any entanglement was altogether voluntary. Jesus might have refused to answer the inquiry at all, as he did when asked for a sign from heaven, or for his authority in the temple; or he might have returned an answer of an indefinite kind as he so often admittedly did.

“Ye hypocrites.” Commentators, who are very severe on the falsehood as they term it of the ironical compliment with which these disciples of the Pharisees and these Herodians began this interview, declare this exclamation of Jesus to be a severe castigation thereof, which must have made those men wince. It is astonishing what a sin a piece of banter can be deemed to be by commentators who themselves own their belief that Jesus himself sometimes spoke in irony, and who are quite certain he so spoke of the “righteous who needed no repentance.” Besides, the salutation Ye hypocrites! was, as we know, the customary method of accosting his opponents by Jesus; the ascription of any special significance to it in this instance is of highly doubtful validity.

19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.

“Shew me.” The purpose of this singular request on the part of Jesus is not ascertainable. The suggestions that have been thrown out upon the point vie with each other in insipidity, and in that only. As it was not possible to show Jesus anything in the real sense of the word, the problem is to suggest in what way the production and examination of this Roman coin threw any light on the subject at issue to the minds of those present — a problem which still awaits a plausible solution.

20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?

Upon a penny being produced, Jesus asks, “Whose is this image and superscription?” Jesus, of course, knew quite well whose image and what superscription adorned the coin he was inspecting. But theologians tell us that Jesus asked questions and sought information in a nominal and verbal verse [sic] only, with the object of leading up to something he wished to say; for omniscience possessed the immense convenience of knowing beforehand the exact reply which would be made to any question asked.

21 They say unto him, Cæsar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

In reply to this inquiry of Jesus, they say that the image on the coin was Cæsar’s. Most likely it was a portrait of the particular Cæsar who did Judea the distinguished honour of at this time reigning over it; and whose manner of discharging his exalted functions had been for some years past to live on a small island in the Mediterranean, and there carry on orgies that were a reproach to humanity.

After these preliminaries we arrive at last at the famous deliverance, the memorable piece of wisdom given upon this great subject by Jesus, “Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The panegyrics that have been lavished on this saying, more particularly in former times, offer an interesting study. Amongst other eulogies, it has frequently been declared to be a transparently divine utterance; anything so sage and so profound could never have originated in a mere human mind.

When we remember that this saying of Jesus has received praise as a wise and excellent one from many non-believers also, it is undeniably depressing, Reader, to own, as we have to own, that we have pondered upon and searched this saying in vain for the evidences not only of its superhuman character but of its asserted practical wisdom even.

We are not much concerned at our inability to discern the divine character of this utterance of Jesus. The gorgeous hues seen by piety in things connected with the object of devotion are admittedly far more subjective than objective in their origin; for they are found in connection with false religions just as with the true one. Not only, for example, are the homely bits of real wisdom to be found in the Koran resplendent in the eyes of the faithful, but even things therein that are not wise are reverenced as of unsearchable value.

Our incapacity to perceive the practical and intrinsic value of this celebrated saying of Jesus is more discouraging. And yet we are not alone; for many others have also recorded their inability to perceive any illumination in this saying. Perhaps, too, we may plead that we live in times when the entire category of adages, maxims, aphorisms, and “wise-sayings” has undergone a very serious but a very proper depreciation in men’s minds generally.

“Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s.” It is evident enough, as indeed is seen from a comparison of one of these Gospels with another, that these Gospel records of the dialogues between Jesus and his opponents are mere fragments of what took place. The word “therefore” in this phrase may reasonably be supposed to refer to something that had been said but not here recorded. It is impossible to see any “therefore” in what is given as preceding this saying. For surely the notion that coins belong to the monarch whose image they bear, or that the circulation of his own coinage in a subjugated country by a conqueror is a valid title to sovereignty may be dismissed as too childish for discussion.

The real question at issue was, What things in Judea were Cæsar’s? What iota of real right of any kind had a Roman conqueror in Judea at all? What was there that good and patriotic Jews could recognize as Cæsar’s rights, and therefore “render” to him? Cæsar was in Judea by means and by virtue of brute force; by the strength of the Roman legions, and by that alone. It was not pretended that Cæsar was in Judea by the will of the people or by any other moral title. It is impossible to perceive a shred of anything that could justly be termed “Cæsar’s” at all in reference to or bearing upon the question raised by these Pharisees and Herodians.

The admission of Cæsar’s “rights” in Judea, the acknowledgment of Roman authority in his own native land which is involved in this answer of Jesus, is a spiritless recognition of foreign domination that does Jesus little credit and little honour. Precisely the same attitude was displayed in the tribute-money impost incident, where “lest we offend them” was the only principle — if such it can be called — assigned for compliance therewith. “Resist not evil” is the foundation underlying the attitude of Jesus in both cases.

In these days, when the principle that the consent of the governed is the only real and true foundation of government is accepted in all enlighted countries, and towards the triumph of which so many eminent Christians have nobly contributed — thus showing themselves better than their creed, as happily men everywhere so often do — it is no longer necessary even to discuss the supposed right of a governor to rule a nation against its wishes.

It is not a little curious to reflect, Reader, that the Jesus who here preached acquiescence in the foreign conquest of his country was — by hypothesis — the same Jesus who had so often in times past mightily assisted Judea to resist and throw off foreign conquest. In the days when Jesus was the God of Battles, when the Lord was a man of war, did he not oven stay the Sun and the Moon that Judea might more effectually vanquish her enemies? Any fixed principles in heaven’s dealings with its favourite people are as untraceable as they are with other peoples.

As a general proposition the saying, “Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” is a mere truism; for it is palpable that Cæsar and God must, like everyone else, be entitled to what is due to them. In controverted matters between civil and ecclesiastical claims, as in disputes between man and man, nation and nation, and every contested subject whatsoever, to say that we ought to give to each what is due to it is a platitude that does not bring us one iota nearer a solution.

The practical question here raised is, What things in social life appertain to Cæsar, and what to heaven and its supposed representatives; and in cases of dispute how are we to discriminate between the two claims? On this real issue the sonorous phrase we are now considering is not, and never has been, of the slightest practical use; every disputant using it in his own sense, as its open character made inevitable.

Conflicts between civil and ecclesiastical authorities have filled the pages of history ever since Christianity came into the world; and no better comment on the true value of the dictum of Jesus which, it is professed, lays down the relation of the temporal and spiritual, could be desired. In the early times of Christianity, indeed for several centuries after its appearance, the civil powers flagrantly oppressed, often quite suppressed, the just spiritual rights and freedom of Christians. How completely this state of things was afterwards reversed is well known. How Christian authorities suppressed the rights of non-Christians and even of Christians not of the dominant type, and how they intermeddled in the most purely civil matters, until, in the ages of faith, the ecclesiastical powers tampered with everything, from deposing monarchs down to prying into the minutest matters of the daily life of men, history has put on record. Recorded also are the happier facts that since the revival of learning, the dawning of science, the disruption of the household of faith, and the dwindling of religious belief which began four centuries ago and have since continued, ecclesiastical authority has waned and been banished from one intrusion after another, until now, in the principal nations of the world, the recognition of any ecclesiastical authority of any kind is entirely voluntary and completely optional.

In some of the older countries some remanets [sic] of ecclesiastical intermeddling still, indeed, remain; and their friction-producing capacities may serve to remind us what the combats of our forefathers over the major spiritual thralls that have now vanished must have been.

In our own country [England, I believe — ], for instance, ecclesiastical claims long delayed and obstructed, and in a measure even yet hamper, the education of our children; and little things still tramp from one end of a town to the other to get, along with their geography, what their fathers — or more probably their mothers — happen to deem proper religious instruction.

Around the grim subject of burial, where all human distinctions seem for ever ended; where the same visible fate awaits us all alike, and where bickerings are peculiarly painful, ecclesiastical meddlings obstinately linger; and the singular and odious spectacle is still seen of men of the most varied beliefs who lived in the same street in peace, comfort, and even friendship, strictly assorted at death, and duly placed in carefully and sharply classified portions of a common cemetery.

The closed museums and libraries, whose decorous appearance on a “Sabbath” gives a kind of respectability to the adjoining open taverns; and the concubinage of many excellent people, with the bastardizing of their children, arising from the disputed propriety of marriage with a late wife’s sister, still bear witness to the survival in these islands of some curious scraps of a once imposing ecclesiastical domination.

We may also just remark that in this famous phrase of Jesus there is an inherent feature which is greatly to the disadvantage of Cæsar. All things whatever — Cæsar’s things included — are, of course, in a final sense God’s. How much this consideration made against Cæsar in contentions matters; how certain the benefit of a doubt was to be given in favour of the rival claimant to whom everything actually and ultimately belonged, is very manifest.

22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

Astonishment proceeds from causes of so widely different a character, that it would have been interesting to have known the nature of the marvelling felt by these listeners. How far these Herodians and disciples of the Pharisees considered they had been successful in their mission of entangling Jesus cannot be gathered. Some Christian commentators think they had been entirely baffled and defeated by Jesus’ answer, which these commentators pronounce a masterpiece of defensive adroitness, in addition to its greater virtues. Other commentators think, on the other hand, that Jesus courageously committed himself to the principle that the de facto government of Cæsar, however distasteful, was to be respected and obeyed.

When we reflect that in the course of a few days, Jesus was about to leave our planet and return to his heavenly throne, the question of entanglement on such a matter seems altogether immaterial.

From what I remember of the Bible, it was pretty common for the Jews to get their asses handed to them in battle by some set of pagan barbarians or other who would then rule over them and treat them miserably for a spell. And in retrospect, their historians would write this up as a measure of chastening meted out by a just and angry God who was using the pagan barbarians as his rod of chastisement.

So I think our Agnostic underestimates the extent to which a “lie back and enjoy it, render unto Caesar, it’s for your own good” answer by Jesus would have been interpreted as a perfectly reasonable one. When our Agnostic writes that “It was not pretended that Cæsar was in Judea by the will of the people or by any other moral title” he doesn’t consider that perhaps Caesar was in Judaea as an agent of God’s design. This strikes me as a likely conclusion for Jews to have drawn at the time.

I suspect that Jesus just didn’t think the question of church and state was all that crucial: Don’t try to rebel against Rome and institute some better earthly kingdom. The time for that is long past. Israel is under the thumb of Rome for a good reason, and now the time is come for righteous people to focus exclusively on the eternal kingdom and forget about all this fuss down here entirely. I’ll be back in a jiffy and I’m going to be sweeping everything clean anyway.

I think our Agnostic is spot on when he says that Jesus was asked a serious and important question and gave an evasive and uninstructive answer. But I don’t really think Jesus intended to be informing modern debates about political philosophy and the consent of the governed. He was anticipating the imminent end of the kingdoms of the world and the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Since that didn’t come to pass, nowadays Christians are trying to shoehorn his teachings into the mundane world, but as it turns out they aren’t too useful down here.