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Whose Image?

As part of Holy Week, many Christians read and remember the events that took place during Jesus' last week. One incident recorded by the Gospels happened when spies sent from the chief priests asked Jesus whether it was lawful for Jews to give tribute to Caesar (Rome) or not (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; and Luke 20:20-26). The meaning of Jesus' response evades many readers of the Gospels due to a genuine lack of understanding of the historical and spiritual world of Jesus and ancient Judaism. His response, however, betrays his genius, as well as providing a window into Jesus' place and voice within his contemporary Judaism.

This Holy Week blog is taken from a chapter of my book, Windows Into the Bible. This incident in the life of Jesus took place in the days leading up to Passover provides a window into the historical, cultural, and spiritual world of Jesus' Judaism, and it shows his genius and genuine belief in Israel's path of redemption.


Jesus was a brilliant communicator. Although he used simple language, underneath his simple speech ran a learned sophistication that comes from the highest levels of Jewish academic training.[1] Imbedded within his simple words lie deft and sophisticated allusions to biblical texts and contemporary debates within ancient Judaism. His simple yet sophisticated language conveyed Jesus’ profound message. The unlearned in his audience enjoyed Jesus’ direct, simple message, but the learned members of his audience grasped the sophisticated message imbedded within his simple words.

Modern readers often miss many of the associations within Jesus’ words because they do not know their contexts, either biblical or Jesus’ contemporary Judaism. When we read the words of Jesus within their historical, cultural, and spiritual contexts, we can also grasp Jesus’ profound message.


The Gospels record how during the week before Passover the chief priests sent spies to question Jesus, “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” (Luke 20:22; Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; and Luke 20:20-26). Jesus’ response, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” represents his simple manner of speech that contains a profound message. And it enabled him to allude capture, yet his meaning was unambiguously clear.

Denarius of Tiberias

At this time, during the week before Passover, Jesus became a target for the chief priests because he criticized their abuse of power and corruption, for which he predicted the destruction of the temple (see Luke 19:45-48; 20:9-19; Mark 12:1-12; and Matt. 21:33-46). They could not take action against him publicly because of his popularity with the people (Luke 19:47-48 and 20:19). Therefore, they sought to entrap him and accuse him before Rome (Luke 23:1-2).

In the first century, as today, paying taxes indicated the subjugation of the people to a government. Roman taxation was the source of bitter conflict between the Jewish people and Rome. In 6 CE, Rome removed Archelaus (Matt. 2:22), the son of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1-19), as ethnarch of Judea and placed his territory, Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, and its people under direct Roman rule. The Roman governor of Coele-Syria, Quirinius, took a census (Luke 2:2) of Archaelaus’ former realm as part of Rome’s annexation of it (Josephus, War 2.111-112, 117-118; Ant. 18.1-10). Quirinius’ census was for the purpose of taxation, a sign of direct Roman sovereignty over Judea.

In response to the Roman census, Judah of Gamla (Acts 5:37) incited an uprising of his countrymen: “(Judah) incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters, after having God for their lord” (War 2.118).[2] According to Josephus, Judas viewed the Roman census as carrying “with it a status amounting to downright slavery” (Ant. 18.4), and Roman taxation became the principal symbol of Jewish enslavement to Rome. He, therefore, “appealed to the nation to make a bid for independence” noting “that Heaven (God) would be their zealous helper to no lesser end than the furthering of their enterprise until it succeeded” (Ant. 18.5). In response to Judas’ message, Josephus notes that “all the more if with high devotion in their hearts they (Judas and his followers) stood firm and did not shrink from the bloodshed that might be necessary” (Ant. 18.5). Judas’ words, however, didn’t only appeal to a few followers. Josephus describes that the populace responded gladly to what he said, and that Judas’ ideology continued to impact the Jewish people throughout the first century (Ant. 18.6-10).[3]

Central to the tensions and conflict between Rome and the Jewish people was a political-theological ideology founded upon two convictions: 1) the God of Israel is the all-powerful creator of the universe; He alone is God, and 2) Israel was His Chosen People, and His special inheritance. Subjugation to a foreign, idolatrous power presented a challenge to this ideological framework; moreover, it compromised Israel’s ability to freely serve and worship God as His Chosen People.[4] As a general rule, most Jews viewed foreign rule as unnatural to both God and His people: “I shall not appoint nor delegate anyone else, so to speak, to rule over you, but I Myself will rule over you” (Mekilta de Rabbi Ishamel on Exodus 19:4). The sages of Israel interpreted Leviticus 25:55, “For to Me the people of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God,” to mean, “’they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt’—it was on that condition that I brought them out of Egypt; on the condition that they not be enslaved. ‘I am the Lord your God’—why is this stated? To teach that whoever is enslaved in the world below, it is as though he is enslaved in the world above” (Sifra Ba-Har, 9.4). The subjugation of the Jewish people to Roman rule in the first century led to two divergent points of view based upon the Jewish conviction of Israel’s God as the only God and Israel’s unique position as His Chosen People.

The first point of view, represented by Judah and his movement, which Josephus called the “fourth philosophy (Ant. 18.23), assumed that submission to foreign, pagan rule amounted to sin: “They (Judah’s movement) have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master” (Ant. 18.23; see War 2.118). If submission to foreign rule amounts to sin for the Jewish nation, then the natural manner of handling this sin was to take up the sword and fight against the foreign, idolatrous power, Rome, and those Jews who consented to her rule. Judah believed that if the Jews took up the sword against Rome “that Heaven (God) would be their zealous helper to no lesser end than the furthering of their enterprise until it succeeded” (Ant. 18.5). Thus, the fundamental teaching of the “fourth philosophy” was demand for the sole rule of God, which led to a radical breach with Rome and Caesar’s claims to sovereignty; through the Jewish battle against Rome, the final redemption of Israel and the end of the age would be ushered in.[5] Josephus noted the widespread popularity of Judah’s philosophy among the Jewish people (Ant. 18.6-10), which eventually led to the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE) and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.

The second point of view determined that Israel’s subjugation to Rome happened because of Israel’s sin. In this instance, the current situation would be resolved if Israel would repent of its sin; then, God would redeem them and remove the yoke of Roman oppression. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, a sage who saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, stated:

“And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl” (Exod. 21:6): Why was the ear specified of all limbs? Because it hears at Sinai “For to me the people of Israel are servants” (Lev. 25:55), yet cast off the yoke of [the kingdom of] heaven and accepted the yoke of flesh and blood. Thus Scripture states: Let the ear come forward and be pierced, for it has not obeyed what it heard. Another interpretation: he did not want to be enslaved to his creator, let him be enslaved to his [the creator’s] sons (t. Baba Kama 7.5-6).

Rabban Yohanan’s statement affirms that Israel’s subjugation to foreign rule is an unnatural state, but according to him, the placement of “the yoke of flesh and blood” (i.e., foreign rule) upon Israel happened because Israel “cast off the yoke of [the kingdom] of heaven.” Although not stated explicitly, the assumption is that if Israel will accept upon itself “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” that “the yoke of flesh and blood” would be removed.

While the members of Judah’s movement likely spoke about “the kingdom of heaven”—God’s reign upon the earth, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” became a central concept among those who held the second point of view. During the first century, this ideology manifested itself in a peace-seeking faction among the Jews that used the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as an anti-slogan against the ideology of the fourth philosophy.[6] Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai belonged to this peace-seeking faction, and as we daw in his quotation cited above, he viewed foreign rule as unnatural for the Jewish people, but the cause of foreign oppression was Israel’s failure to listen to and obey the commandments of God. On another occasion he criticized those, like the Jewish rebels of the First Revolt, who took up weapons against their fellow man (see War 2.254-257; 7.254-255; see also t. Sotah 14.1-4), especially those who sought to establish peace:

Behold it says, “[From] whole stones (אבנים שלמות; ‘avanim shlemot) you shall build the altar of the Lord your God” (Deut. 27:6), that is, stones that establish peace (שלום; shalom). And is it not a matter of kal vahomer? If the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “raise no iron against them” (Deut. 27:5) of the stones of the altar, which neither see nor hear nor speak, simply because they establish peace between Israel and their Father in heaven (see Luke 19:41-44), how much more in the case of a human being who establishes peace between a man and a man, or a man and his wife, between city and city, or one people and another, between family and family, or government and government that for such a man no retribution should come to him (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Ex. 20:25; see also Sifra Kedoshim 11.8; Matt. 5:9; t. Peah 4.21).

Jesus warned his followers against the attitude of the militant nationalists, who sought to fight Rome through bloodshed using Rome’s tactics against them:” The kings of the Gentiles (i.e., Rome) exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest (μείζων; meizon) among you become as the youngest (νεώτερος; neoteros), and the leader as the one who serves (διακονῶν; diakonon)” (Luke 22:25-26). Jesus’ words preserve a sophisticated complex of thought. His mention of the “greater” and “younger” alludes to the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25:23). Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau, was told, “Two nations are in your womb; two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older (רב; rav: literally “greater”) will serve (יעבד; ya’avod) the younger (צעיר; tsa’ir).” Ancient Jewish tradition used the biblical names of Esau (Esau, Edom, and Seir) to refer to the Roman Empire (see Genesis Rabbah 65:19; Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishamael on Ex. 20:13; Midrash on the Psalms to Psalm 9:1; 4 Ezra 6:8-10; Midrash Ha-Gadol on Gen. 25:23). The biblical stories of Jacob and Esau, therefore, were interpreted within Israel’s struggle with Rome; Jacbo served as the archetype for Israel and Esau for Rome.

Jacob offers Esau food in exchange for his birthright

The usual reading of Genesis 25:23 states that the “older will serve the younger;” however, a certain ambiguity exists within the Hebrew. Hebrew was written without vowels; therefore, the reader supplied the vowels in the reading. The consonantal text of Genesis 25:23 that has יעבד could read “he (the older) will serve the younger” (ya’avod), or it could be read, “he (the older) will be served by the younger” (ya’avid). Such ambiguities provided Jewish sages opportunities for instruction.

Jesus’ words in Luke 22:26 preserve the most ancient witness to a midrash (interpretation) of Genesis 25:23 that appears in rabbinic sources: “’And the greater will serve the younger’ (Gen. 25:23). Rabbi Huna said, “If he (Jacob) is pure, he (Esau) will serve [him: Jacob], but if he is not [pure], he (Jacob) will be made to serve (i.e., enslaved) [to him: Esau]” (Genesis Rabbah 63:24; see also Midrash Ha-Gadol on Gen. 25:23). Rabbi Huna’s words used the ambiguity within the Hebrew in Genesis 25:23 to explain Israel’s subjugation to Esau (Rome)—Jacob was not pure. If he had been, Esau would have served Jacob.

The Aramaic Targum (translation/interpretation) of Genesis 25:23 follows a similar line of interpretation: “Two peoples are in your womb, and two kingdoms shall be separated from your womb, and one kingdom will be stronger than the other kingdom, and the greater will be subject to the younger, if the children of the younger keep the commandments of the Torah” (Pseudo-Jonathan; see also Targum Onkelos to Gen. 27:40). Israel’s freedom and enslavement are understood through the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. If Israel keeps the commandments (see Luke 11:28; Sifre on Deut. 32:29), Rome will not rule over them, but if Israel disobeys the commandments, she will be subjected to Roman domination.

In Genesis, Esau is told, “By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother (Jacob); but when you break loose, you shall cast his yoke from your neck” (27:40). Later Jewish interpreters understood this verse within the language of the “two yokes” (i.e., the yoke of the commandments versus the yoke of flesh and blood [foreign rule]): “And by your sword you shall live, and you shall serve before your brother and be subject, and it shall come about when the descendants of Jacob study the Torah and keep the commandments (i.e., take upon themselves the yoke of heaven), they will place the yoke of their burden on your neck, but when the children of Jacob abandon the commandments and hinder themselves from studying the Torah, you shall rule over him and shall remove the yoke of servitude from upon their necks (i.e., Israel will take on the yoke of flesh and blood)” (Targum Neophyti on Gen. 27:40).

A Roman sword and scabbard discovered in Jerusalem

Rabbi Yose ben Halafta said, “If you see your brother Jacob throwing the yoke of Torah off his neck, persecution is ordained against him, and you will be able to rule over him” (Genesis Rabbah 67:7). This interpretive stream of thought saw within the biblical story of Jacob and Esau Israel’s future. If Israel obeyed the commandments of God, Esau (Rome) would be subject to Jacob, and Israel would be free. But, if Israel disobeyed the commandment, Esau (Rome) would dominate Jacob, and Israel would be enslaved: “If Israel kept the words of the Torah given to them, no people or kingdom would rule over them. And what does the Torah say? ‘Take upon you the yoke of My kingdom and emulate one another in the fear of God and practice kindness to one another’” (Sifre on Deut. 32:29; Ant. 18.117; Mark 12:28-34).

Jesus’ statement, “But not so with you; rather let the greatest (רב; rav) among you become as the youngest (צעיר; tsa’ir), and the leader as one who serves,” warned his disciples not to follow the path of the “greatest” (Esau: Rome), which the ideology of the “fourth philosophy” sought to do, but rather be and the “youngest” (Jacob) and submit to obedience to the commandments of God. Jesus the growing nationalist tensions within the land of Israel in the first century, and he saw where it would lead: Jerusalem’s destruction (Luke 19:41-44; 21:5-9, 20-24, 28-32). He believed, however, that Israel’s redemption lay in its accepting upon itself the yoke of heaven, not the yoke of flesh and blood. He challenged his disciples that they should not embrace the violent nationalistic tendencies that were sweeping through the land, but rather they should accept upon themselves the kingdom of heaven[7] and be a community characterized by submission to God’s rule and reign.

Jesus concluded his words to his disciples: “And the leader as one who serves. For which is greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table, but I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:26-27). His repeated mentions of “one who serves” not only ties into Genesis 25:23 but also connects to a saying of a second century BCE sage, Antigonus of Socho, who said, “Be not like servants who serve the master on condition of reward, rather be like servants who serve the master on condition of not receiving a reward, and let the fear of heaven be upon you” (m. Avot 1.3). Antigonus’ statement was a radical breach from the Old Testament worldview, which stated that based upon one’s service to God one received reward or punishment.[8] Antigonus introduced the radical idea of serving God simply because He is God. His concluding statement, “and let the fear of heaven be upon you,” provides the motivation for one’s service: love (see Deut. 6:13). Throughout the Old Testament and into ancient Judaism, “fear” (or “awe”) and “love” of God are interchangeable (see Gen. 22:12); therefore, one’s motivation in serving God is love, not reward.[9]

Jesus’ words to his disciples instructed them that the path of Israel’s redemption was service of God, not for the sake of reward, but out of love (Mark 12:28-34; see also Sifre on Deut. 32:29), and not through violence, the way of Esau (Rome). Like those of the peace-seeking movement who coined the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as an anti-slogan against those who sought violence as a means of liberty, Jesus saw obedience to God, submission to the kingdom of heaven—his movement—as the way Israel would achieve liberty, redemption.

Rabbi Hananiah, prefect of the priests, interpreted Song of Songs 1:6, “My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept” to mean “This refers to the councils of Judea (i.e., the Jewish rebels in the First Revolt), who disregarded the yoke of heaven and established the yoke of flesh and blood” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan version A, 20; see also t. Sotah 14.4). The phrase “yoke of flesh and blood” usually refers to the yoke of foreign rule, but in the saying of Rabbi Hananiah (see t. Sotah 14.4), the “yoke of flesh and blood” refers to the Jewish rebels, the followers of the fourth philosophy, who sought to combat Rome with the sword: “And by your sword shall you live” (Gen. 27:40). They threw off the “yoke of heaven” (i.e., obedience to God) and in so doing brought destruction upon themselves and Israel.

On an occasion after the First Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai came upon a young Jewish maiden plucking grain from the dung of an Arab horse. When he saw this, he exclaimed, “You were unwilling to be subject to God, behold now you are subjected to the most inferior of the nations, the Arabs…And thus it says, “Because you did not serve…therefore you will serve your enemy” (Deut. 28:47-48). Because you did not serve the Lord your God with love; therefore you serve your enemy with hatred” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exod. 19:1).

The position of Judah of Gamla and his followers was that the acceptance of foreign rule equaled sin; the sages countered with the idea that Israel’s subjugation to foreign rule came about because of Israel’s sin. If Israel repents and returns to God, no nation would rule over them:

“If they were wise they would understand this” (Deut. 32:39): If Israel would but look closely at what their father Jacob had said to them, no nation or kingdom could dominate them. What did he say to them? Accept upon yourselves the kingdom of heaven, vie with each other in fear of heaven, and act toward each other in loving-kindness (Sifre on Deut. 32:29).

Rabbi Hunaniah ben Kanah said, “Everyone who receives (upon himself the yoke of) the Torah removes from himself the yoke of the kingdom and worldly care, and everyone who casts off from himself the yoke of the Torah places upon himself the yoke of the kingdom and worldly care” (m. Avot 3.5; see Luke 6:31).

Roman rule was a bitter reality for Jews living in the land of Israel in the first century. It created tensions between Rome and its Jewish subjects and between Jews against other Jews. A practical manifestation of Roman sovereignty was taxation, and as with the uprising of Judah of Gamla, taxation became of symbol of Rome superiority and Jewish enslavement.

Closely related to the issue of taxation was the minting of coins. The ability to mint their own coins indicates a nation’s freedom and independence (1 Macc. 15:5-8). The inability or restricted minting of currency is a sign of subjugation. At the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt, the Jewish rebels began to mint their own coins, particularly silver coins, which had not been allowed under Roman rule, as a political statement of the nature of their conflict: a war to expel Rome from Judea and establish an independent Jewish state.[10] The inscriptions on the coins promoted the ideology of the Jewish rebels: “Freedom of Zion” and “of the redemption of Zion.”[11] So the denarius that bore Caesar’s image that Jesus asked to see symbolized Roman rule and oppression and Jewish subjugation to a foreign, idolatrous empire.

The silver shekel from the Jerusalem Temple

The spies of the chief priests that questioned Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar understood the volatile environment that existed within Jerusalem at the time. They knew that Passover, the festival commemorating Jewish liberty and redemption from Egyptian bondage, heightened nationalistic and political feelings (this of course was why Pilate came to Jerusalem from his home in Caesarea during the festival: “to keep the peace.”). They also knew how Rome responded to troublemakers who stirred up insurrection against Rome (Luke 23:1-2). At the same time, they understood that if Jesus publically consented to the paying of taxes to Caesar he would show himself as a Roman sympathizer, which made him suspect to many of his countrymen.

When asked this question, Jesus responded, “Show me a coin. Whose image and inscription has it…Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:24-25). His response demonstrated his creative and sophisticated genius as a communicator and his sensitivity to the difficult situation in which he found himself. On the surface, Jesus’ answer seems like an evasion of the question, in fact, one wonders exactly what he meant by his response. This confusion did not exist with his ancient audience, however, because they would have picked-up on the subtle association that Jesus wanted to evoke in the heart of his listeners.

Jesus’ ancient audience, many of whom knew the Old Testament by heart, would have recognized his response hinted at the first appearance in the Bible of the word “image”: “In the image of God, He created them” (Gen. 1:27). So his real message was, “Render to Caesar that which bears his image, and to God that which bear His.” His response acknowledged the reality of Roman rule in the present, but it neither expressed friendship toward Rome nor support for those who sought to cast off the yoke of Roman rule by the sword.[12] Imbedded within his reply lies a rebuke of those asking the question (i.e., spies of the chief priests, the Sadducean authorities) and the ideology of the fourth philosophy—i.e., those who embraced and profited from Roman rule (the chief priests) and those who sought to drive Rome out of Judea by force of arms.

Jesus belonged to the peace-seeking movement within Judaism. His use of the phrase “kingdom of Heaven,” which appears upon his lips more than any other in the Gospels, bears witness to this. He embraced the Jewish hopes of redemption, but he acknowledged the current reality of Roman rule came about because of Israel’s sin. If Israel would repent and return to God, redemption would come.[13] His response, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God’s the things that are God’s,” deftly reflects the outlook of the peace-seeking movement.

Jesus’ subtle use of the word image in his response recalls the importance Genesis 1:27 played within the worldview of the Jewish sages, who concluded that since every human bears the image of God each one has intrinsic value:

Therefore but a single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish Scripture imputes it to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish; and if any man saves alive a single soul Scripture imputes it to him as though he had saved alive a whole world...for man stamps many coins with the one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, has stamped every man with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore every one must say, “For my sake was the world created” (m. Sanhedrin 4.5; see Luke 6:9).


One of the great proponents of this view was the 1st century BCE sage, Hillel, who once took leave of his disciples to bathe in the bathhouse. They inquired where he was going, to which he replied, “to perform a mitzvah (a religious commandment).” Hillel’s disciples questioned him how bathing performed a religious act, to which Hillel responded, “If the man appointed to the duty of securing and rinsing the statues of the king set up in the theaters and circuses is for that paid by maintenance, and, in addition, he is one of the government officials—how much more I, who have been created in the divine image and likeness, have a duty to care for my body” (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3). The irony of Hillel’s response underscores his fundamental assumption of the intrinsic value of every person because each one bears God’s image. Because of this, Hillel concluded that the summary of all the commandments was the verse, “You shall love your neighbor who is like yourself” (Lev. 19:18; b. Shabbat 31a; see Matt. 22:39-40; Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8).

The realization of the value of the individual to God developed a humane spirit within ancient Judaism grounded in the biblical verses of Genesis 1:27 and Leviticus 19:18.[14] And because God so valued the one (Luke 15:1-10) a corollary idea emerged: in the way I treat another, who is like myself, God will act toward me: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? If a mere mortal harbors wrath, who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins...Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor, remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults (Ben Sira 28:2-5, 7; see Matt. 5:7; 6:14-15; and 7:1-2). Judaism eventually embraced this humane spirit, but in the first century, many did not accept it.[15]

Based upon the descriptions we find of the chief priests (Sadducees) and the members of the fourth philosophy neither group accepted the more humane approach that developed within ancient Judaism.[16] Josephus described the Sadducees as “indeed more savage (heartless) than any of the other Jews…when they sit in judgment” (Ant. 20.199). He relates a story how the Sadducees prescribed the death penalty for a person who issued a false report about the high priest. The Pharisees, however, opposed such a severe penalty arguing that “they did not think it right to sentence a man to death for calumny, and anyway the Pharisees are naturally lenient in the matter of punishments” (Ant. 13.293-298; see also m. Avot 1.1). The leniency of the Pharisees came from their acceptance of the more humane spirit that even recognized that the wicked and guilty bear the image of God (see below; Matt. 23:29-30). Josephus relates that the Sadducees behaved harshly even to other Sadducees (War 2.166).

The members of the fourth philosophy, guided by their burning passion for liberty (Ant. 18.23), felt it their divine responsibility to take up the sword against Rome and Jews who sympathized with Rome. They had no hesitation spilling Roman or Jewish blood: “They (the followers of Judah of Gamla) sowed the seed from which sprang strife between factions and the slaughter of fellow citizens. Some were slain in civil strife, for these men madly had recourse to butchery of each other and of themselves from a longing not to be outdone by their opponents” (Ant. 18.8). Josephus described the intra-Jewish hatred and bloodshed that existed during the First Revolt, when the Jewish rebels also fought against Rome (War 7.252-274).

The humane approach, embraced by some of the Pharisees, concluded that “whoever caused a single soul to perish…it’s as though he caused the whole world to perish” (m. Sanhedrin 4.5). Thus, even the shedding of the blood of the wicked diminishes the divine image because every person bears God’s image: “’You shall not murder’ (Exod. 20:13). This tells that if one sheds blood it is accounted to him as though he diminished the divine image. To give a parable: A king of flesh and blood entered a province and the people set up portraits of him, made images of him, and struck coins in his honor. Later on they upset his portraits, broke his images, and defaced his coins, thus diminishing the likeness of the king. So also if one sheds blood it is accounted to him as though he had diminished the divine image” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael to Exodus 20:13).

The rabbinic passages in Mishnah Sanhedrin (4.5) and the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 20:13 draw parallels between a human being bearing the image of God and the striking of coins with the image of the king: “Show me a coin. Whose image and inscription has it…Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:24-25). Jesus embraced the developing humane spirit within ancient Judaism that saw the intrinsic value of the individual to God because each one bears His image. His reply to the spies of the Sadducean chief priests carried a veiled jab at both the Sadducean aristocracy and those who wanted to cast off the Roman yoke by taking up the sword—both of whom did not accept the imprint of God’s image upon everyone.

Jesus accepted the present reality of Roman rule, but like others of the peace-seeking movement, he believed that if Israel would through repentance and obedience accept God’s rule, then Roman sovereignty would come to an end. So give Caesar his money, but give to God that which is His. Jesus’ statement comes very close to that of Rabbi Hunaniah ben Kanah, who said, “Everyone who receives (upon himself the yoke of) the Torah removes from himself the yoke of the kingdom and worldly care, and everyone who casts off from himself the yoke of the Torah places upon himself the yoke of the kingdom and worldly care” (m. Avot 3.5; see Luke 6:31; Matt. 11:28-30). If Israel will give to God that which is His, i.e., accept His yoke (Torah: His reign), then the yoke of the kingdom (Caesar) would be removed.

Jesus’ deft allusion to the image of God perhaps points to his specific identification as to how one “takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah:” by caring for those created in the image of God. If that is the case, then his response is near to the spirit of the ancient interpretation of Deuteronomy 32:29:

“If they were wise they would understand this” (Deut. 32:39): If Israel would but look closely at what their father Jacob had said to them, no nation or kingdom could dominate them. What did he say to them? Accept upon yourselves the kingdom of heaven, vie with each other in fear of heaven, and act toward each other in loving-kindness (Sifre on Deut. 32:29).

In the Gospels (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28), Jesus identified the great commandments of the law: Deuteronomy 6:5 (Love the Lord your God) and Leviticus 19:18 (and your neighbor who is like yourself). The reciting of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) was identified as accepting upon oneself the “kingdom (rule/reign) of Heaven” (m. Berachot 2.2). The injunction to “fear heaven, and act toward each other in loving-kindness” offers a dynamic interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus seemingly defined “rendering to God that which is His” as caring for those created in His image—a challenge to both the Sadducean aristocracy and the adherents of the fourth philosophy.

The Nash Papyrus which contains the Ten Commandments and the Shema


Like his contemporaries, Jesus identified with the Jewish hopes of redemption, and he added his voice to those calling upon the people to repent and obediently submit to the will of God: this was the path to redemption (Matt. 5:21, 11:28-30; Luke 11:27-28, 19:41-42, and 22:24-27). Jesus’ rejoinder, “Render to Caesar's that which bears his image, and to God that which bears his” challenged those who sought to establish God’s reign with the sword, a kingdom of “flesh and blood.” Jesus’ creative genius called upon his hearers to recognize the value of every person because they bear the image of God, and by caring for those made in the image of God, one accepts upon himself the yoke of the Torah, which removes the yoke of the kingdom. Jesus’ audience grasped his direct challenge. Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet, nor a pacifist; rather, he viewed the repentance of the people as an active catalyst that would move God to bring forth redemption: “Great is repentance, for it brings redemption near” (b. Yoma 88b). I wonder how differently our world would look if we embodied Jesus’ message today.

"For the redemption of Zion," the year four coin of the First Revolt

[1] David Flusser, “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness,” in Hillel and Jesus: Comparisons of Two Major Religious Leaders (ed. J. H. Charlesworth and L. L. Johns; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 93.

[2] For more on Judah, his movement, and the census of Quirinius, see “The Census of Quirinius and Luke 2” in the present volume.

[3] The popularity of the nationalist ideology represented by Judah of Gamla and others is seen by the dominance of the School of Shammai of the Pharisaic party in the first century CE, who expressed a nationalist ideology and shared connections with the Zealot movment; Ben Shalom, The School of Shammai and the Zealot’s Struggle against Rome.

[4] The connection between Israel’s freedom and their ability to truly worship God exists within the story of the Exodus: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, “Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrew: Let My people go to worship Me”’” (Exod. 9:1).

[5] Martin Hengel, The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 70 A.D. (trans. David Smith; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989).

[6] David Flusser, “The Image of the Masada Martyrs in Their Own Eyes and in the Eyes of Their Contemporaries,” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period. Volume 2. The Jewish Sages and Their Literature (trans. Azzan Yadin; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 82-90; and idem, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 76-78.

[7] See “The Kingdom of Heaven” in the present volume.

[8] Flusser, “A New Sensitivity in Judaism and the Christian Message,” in Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988), 469-489.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ya’akov Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins: From the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2001), 115-134.

[11] In years two and three of the revolt, the coins bore the inscription “Freedom of Zion,” but in year four, it changed to “of the redemption of Zion.” The change of language reflects the changing fortunes of the Jewish rebels and their growing desperation for divine intervention. In the first several years of the revolt, the rebels assumed that they would drive the Romans from Judea by force of arms alone. Large parts of the country remained under their control and they had won a few battles at this time. By year four, however, their fortunes had changed. Jerusalem alone was left to the rebels, and it was besieged on all sides. In this desperate moment, the leaders of the rebellion encouraged the people that God would intervene and bring deliverance (redemption; Josephus, War 6.288-300). The altered inscription on the Jewish coins indicate this shift to looking for divine deliverance as the Jewish position deteriorated. Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins, 127-128.

[12] Flusser, The Sage from Galilee, 76-77.

[13] Jesus saw the “kingdom of Heaven” as an active reality, which centered upon his messianic self-awareness, where the concept among the Jewish Sages had more of a passive manifestation. On this, see the chapter “Kingdom of Heaven” in the present volume.

[14] Flusser, “A New Sensitivity,” 469-489.

[15] Flusser, Ibid., 471-473.

[16] So too, the Essenes, the sectarian authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls did not accept this humane spirit. Because they believed the world was divided into two camps—the children of light and darkness—and God predetermined one’s placement, without connection to one’s behavior, they believed their obligation was “to love everything that God has chosen and to hate everything He has rejected” (1QS 1.3-4). From this, they drew the moral conclusion that they are “to love all the sons of light each according to his lot in the council of God and to hate all the sons of darkness each according to his guilt in the judgments of God” (1QS 1.9-11). It is significant that none of the sectarian scrolls make mention or allude to every person being created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).

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