"Render to Caesar..."
Over on The Sword, Michael Turton reviews the Jesus Seminar's Five Gospels, a work which I think is becoming increasingly passe. Turton thinks the Seminar's position isn't much different from its fundamentalist critics, since both work off "axiomatic positions whose difference is essentially one of degree". Turton draws on his own literary analysis of Mark to show why most, if not all, of Jesus' sayings are likely fictional. Stephen Carlson comments on Turton's review on Hypotyposeis. Both Turton and Carlson make helpful observations about problems inherent in the Seminar's methodology.
I believe the gospel traditions are more reliable than either Turton or the Jesus Seminar allows, but will not get too much into this now. Rather, I want to use one of Turton's comments as a springboard for discussing the text regarding the question of payment to Caesar. Jesus' veiled opposition to Caesar may have been one of three contributing factors getting him killed, and is indicative of Jesus' reported challenge-riposte activity in general, so it will be useful to consider.
>The Seminar cites Mark 12:17 as an example:
>Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the
>things that are Caesar's, and to God the
>things that are God's." (RSV)
>The writer of Mark has most likely sourced
>this from Romans 13. The context is profoundly
>fictional. The Pharisees do not answer
>Jesus' cryptic comment, though they were
>noted quibblers and wits themselves. The
>ending is thus implausible, as no one
>seriously out to entrap Jesus would let
>Jesus' non-answer go unchallenged.
Mk 12:13-17 is, to me, entirely believable, even if its place in the Markan narrative serves a literary agenda. We have a trouble-maker accused of sedition, who in turn burns and shames his rivals without indicting himself in the process. By all indications, this was how the low-life Jesus managed to acquire the honor and fame that he did, by playing the "macho-man" game as good as any, and better than most, relying on wit, counterquestions, insults -- and veiled meanings when danger threatened. The following catalog of texts is illustrative:
1. The scribes accuse Jesus of blasphemy (Mk. 2:1-12/Mt. 9:1-8/Lk. 5:17-26)
Jesus' riposte: counterquestions
2. The Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus for eating with outcasts (Mk. 2:15-17/Mt. 9:10-13/Lk. 5:29-32)
Jesus' riposte: rhetorical cleverness; backhanded compliment
3. The Pharisees challenge Jesus and the disciples for not fasting (Mk. 2:18-22/Mt. 9:14-17/Lk. 5:33-39)
Jesus' riposte: counterquestion; rhetoric; clever aphorisms
4. The Pharisees challenge Jesus and the disciples for plucking grain on the sabbath (Mk. 2:23-28/Mt. 12:1-8/Lk. 6:1-5)
Jesus' riposte: counterquestion; scriptural one-upsmanship; clever aphorism
5. The Pharisees challenge Jesus for healing a man on the sabbath (Mk. 3:1-6/Mt. 12:9-14/Lk. 6:6-11)
Jesus' riposte: healing (the Mediterranean principle, "actions shame louder than words")
6. The scribes accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed(Mk. 3:19b-30)
Jesus' riposte: counterquestion; rhetoric; insult
7. The Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus and the disciples for eating with unwashed hands (Mk.7:1-23/Mt. 15:1-20)
Jesus' riposte: insult; scriptural one-upsmanship
8. The Pharisees challenge Jesus on the subject of divorce (Mk. 10:2-12/Mt. 19:3-9)
Jesus' riposte: counterquestion, scriptural one-upsmanship
9. The temple authorities and scribes challenge Jesus after his prophetic act in the temple (Mk. 11:27-33/Mt. 21:23-27/Lk. 20:1-8)
Jesus' riposte: counterquestion; blow-off
10. The Herodians and Pharisees challenge Jesus on the subject of paying taxes to Caesar (Mk. 12:13-17/Mt. 22:15-22/Lk. 20:20-26)
Jesus' riposte: counterquestion; insult; demand; counterquestion; clever aphorism
Of course, one could argue that this is "all Mark", as I'm sure Turton would, but this gives too much weight to the writer as an independent literary agent, and also misunderstands the gospel documents as (indeed) primarily literary documents, instead of oral-based catechismal texts aimed at specific communities; communities which in turn informed and influenced the texts themselves. In his review Turton makes plain he isn't wild about bringing communities into the picture. But to resist this and prioritize literary creativity to such an extent imposes individualism on the ancients, denying the interdependent relationships between text and audience. (Philip Esler makes a similar objection to Richard Bauchkam's idea that the gospels were written for "all Christians" rather than specific communities. See New Testament Theology, pp 178-179, which I reviewed yesterday).
In Mk 12:13-17, Jesus sidesteps an initial challenge and combines a counterquestion ("why are you putting me to the test?") and insult ("you hypocrites") with a demand for a coin, thereby shaming his opponents with the public disclosure that they possess something idolatrous (see Malina and Rohrbaugh's Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels). Jesus then escalates the conflict with a nasty question -- "Whose image and inscription is this?" -- which skewers his opponents in the public milieu, as most people naturally hated the coin's violation of the first and second commandments. On this point most Pharisees would have agreed with Jesus (though they were accomodaters to avoid sedition), and prompted by a public display of Caesar's image, may have begun arguing with the Herodians instead of him (as suggested in Malina and Rohrbaugh's Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed., p 112). Jesus would have thus cleverly diffused the attack by setting his adversaries against each other, assuming the mix of Herodian-Pharisees is historical.
When Caesar's name is invoked in vain, the Herodians (/Pharisees?) peg themselves as idolaters, shaming themselves in the eyes of everyone -- especially since by answering the question directly, they've lost face by being put on the defensive. So Jesus takes the opportunity to twist in the knife with the infamous command, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." He could have either meant, "Give Caesar nothing and God everything" (so Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence; Malina and Rohrbaugh), or something like, "Give back to Caesar his filthy coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God's land" (so William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God; R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet).
The essential meaning (behind either that Caesar deserved nothing, or that people should pay taxes "with contempt") would have been clear: Caesar had no valid claim to taxing people (whether or not he was entitled to his blasphemous currency), and his reign was illegitimate. But this is said in a way that the powers-that-be were "unable to trap him". The scenario is credible and one to expect in an agonistic milieu, where veiled meanings and hidden transcripts are one of the "weapons of the weak" (see James Scott's influential work by the same title).
So a rabble-rousing prophet bests his foes while shaming them as idolaters. On top of this -- if Malina and Rohrbaugh are right, and depending on the historical mix of "opponents" here -- he has manipulated the Pharisees by making them unwitting allies who look like fools for their contradictory position. It all adds up to a seditious-sounding candidate for the cross. And indeed, according to Luke, Jesus' foes understood the veiled threat too well: "We heard this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to Caesar" (Lk. 23:2a).
Turton claims that since "the Pharisees (/Herodians?) do not answer Jesus' cryptic comment, though they were noted quibblers and wits themselves", the account is surely fictional. "No one seriously out to entrap Jesus would let Jesus' non-answer go unchallenged." But again, this wasn't a "non-answer", certainly not in a high-context culture where veiled transcripts didn't need spelling out. The public display of the coin (Jesus of course didn't have a coin; his rivals had to produce it for him) spoke volumes. The punch-line may have been ambiguous for some, but only insofar as to what ultimately was to be done with Caesar's coins. The illegitimacy of taxation would have come across unambiguously (otherwise, a simple "yes" answer from Jesus would have put the matter to rest at the start).
Also, the fact that Jesus is portrayed as having the last word is something to expect in the gospels. As confessional pieces, they will never portray Jesus as losing in challenge-riposte (the sole exception being Mk 7:24-30/Mt 15:21-28). Historically speaking, Jesus would have surely "lost" more than he is on record for doing (so I can meet Turton halfway here), but even if the Herodians and/or Pharisees somehow managed to one-up his zinger in this particular instance (I wonder how they could have), that doesn't undermine the essential realism of the challenge-riposte encounter.
Finally, Turton thinks that Mk 12:17 (/Mt 22:21/Lk 20:25/Thom 100) ultimately derives from Rom 13:1-7. I believe Rom 13 represents a more cautious version of Jesus' earlier transcript. Paul's attitude was essentially that Christians should be seen as law-abiding citizens -- especially since the apocalypse was "nearer than ever before", in any case (13:11) (see for instance Horsley and Silbermen's The Message and the Kingdom).
After all is said and done, however, I enjoyed reading Michael's review. I enjoy reading all his lively stuff, disagreements notwithstanding.