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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Caesar

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CaeSAR (Καῖσαρ).—In the Gospel record this name occurs 18 times, in 16 of which it answers to ‘reigning emperor,’ who in each case was Tiberius Caesar; in the remaining two the more individual name is found,—in the one case Augustus (Luke 2:1), and in the other Tiberius (3:1).

The name ‘Caesar’ was assumed by Augustus in 44 b.c., immediately after the tragic death of his grand-uncle, Julius Caesar, being considered by him part of the inheritance left to him. We have Cicero’s authority (ad Att. xiv. 5, 10, 11, 12) for saying that the friends of Octavius began to address him as ‘Caesar’ within a week or two of the Dictator’s assassination. Augustus himself soon gave evidence that he meant to gather up and concentrate on himself all the fame that was associated with ‘Caesar.’ Not many years passed till he came to exercise a world-wide sway, such as the great Julius had never known. He handed on the title to his successors very much as we find it used by the writers of the NT, in the sense of the great ruler or Kaiser. His own name (Gr. Σεβαστός, Lat. Augustus) was quite familiar to them as applied to the reigning emperor (Acts 25:21; Acts 25:25, Nero). The fame of the first Caesar had come to be overshadowed by the remarkable career of the founder of the Empire. The way was thus prepared for the still later development, when the title of ‘Caesar’ was given to the junior partner of the two joint-emperors, and ‘Augustus’ remained the distinguishing name of the supreme ruler. In the Gospel record there is clear confirmation of the first part of this historical development, and there is at the same time no contradiction of the second.

In the majority of the cases of the use of the title ‘Caesar’ in the Gospel writings, the question of paying the tribute has come up. This reveals the great change that had taken place from the time of the ‘census’ under Augustus, when ‘everyone went to enrol himself in his own city’ (Luke 2:3), to that of the trial before Pilate, when the chief charge against Jesus was said to be ‘the forbidding to give tribute to Caesar’ (Luke 23:2). In those thirty-three years of interval the relation between the Roman power, as represented by ‘Caesar,’ and the Jewish people, had undergone a radical change. Judaea had become a Roman province, and was under obligation to ‘pay tribute as well as submit to an enrolment of its heads of households. In perfect accord with this historical fact, St. Luke wrote (Luke 3:1): ‘Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea,’ with the tetrarchs for Galilee, Ituraea, and Abilene, desiring to mark the period in the reign of Tiberius Caesar when ‘the word of God came to John in the wilderness.’ The change came with the death of Herod the Great in 4 b.c. While Varus, the governor of Syria, was engaged in quelling serious outbreaks of rebellion in Jerusalem, the sons of Herod were in Rome waiting the decision of Augustus as to their conflicting claims. At length all parties were heard by the emperor in an assembly that met in the celebrated temple of Apollo, behind his own house on the Palatine. The imperial verdict, announced after a few days, upheld substantially the will of Herod. To Archelaus were assigned Judaea, Samaria, and Idumaea—not as king, but as ethnarch; to Antipas, Galilee and Peraea as tetrarch; Batanaea, Trachonitis, Auranitis, Gaulanitis, and Paneas to Philip, also as tetrarch (Josephus Ant. xvii. viii. 1, xi. 4). The kingdom of Herod was thus divided into three separate territories after his death. As it was in Jerusalem that the question as to the tribute money was raised, our subject in this article has to do only with Archelaus. After some nine years of rule over Judaea, Archelaus was summoned to Rome to answer charges brought against him by a deputation of leading men from Judaea and Samaria. He was deposed and banished by Augustus to Vienne in Gaul in a.d. 6. His territory was put under direct Roman rule, becoming a part of the province of Syria, with a Roman of equestrian rank for its governor. An end was thus put to the uniform consideration for Jewish traditions and national prejudices shown by Herod and his sons. The first notable instance of this in history is met with in the rebellion of a.d. 6, on the occasion of the great census, while Quirinius was governor of Syria, which is referred to in Acts 5:37. The tumult, with its accompanying bloodshed, must have been of no slight moment, when a quarter of a century thereafter Gamaliel could effectually use it in restraining the Council from slaying the Apostles. Between a.d. 6 and a.d. 30, whichever length of cycle for the imperial census be taken, there must have been at least another ‘enrolment’ for purposes of taxation. We do not read of a serious revolt having taken place then as in 6 a.d. The Roman authorities, no doubt, were better prepared for what might happen, and the Jewish people also had learned the fruitlessness of rebellion. As the time of Christ’s public ministry approached, their spirit nevertheless became more and more embittered. It was inevitable that at some point or other in that ministry the question should be pressed upon Him, ‘Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not?’ (Matthew 22:17 ||). It was one of the burning questions of His time. A distinction must here be drawn between the ‘customs’ or duties upon goods and the land tax with poll tax. The latter only passed into the ‘Fiscus’ or imperial treasury. With perfect accuracy, therefore, it could be described as ‘tribute to Caesar.’ This tax was exacted annually, and as the Jews were not yet subject to military conscription, it formed the chief sign of their subjection to the Roman yoke. Officers of state collected it, the procurator for the tax in the case of Judaea being also the governor, Pilate. It was different with the ‘customs,’ which were farmed out to the highest bidder, thus creating that intense antipathy which is revealed in the phrase ‘publicans and sinners.’

The tribute payment after all was based on the fact of the kingship of Caesar. The combination of ‘Caesar’ with ‘king’ sounds entirely unhistorical to one familiar with the rise and growth of the Roman Empire. ‘King’ was a term which Augustus was most careful to avoid from the time that it may be said to have cost the first ‘Caesar’ his life. Among Eastern peoples, however, it was the most usual title for their ruler. During the long reign of Herod no name was more familiar to the Jews than ‘king.’ It was most natural for them to transfer it to ‘Caesar.’ Any one claiming to be a ‘king’ within the wide dominion of Caesar was seeking to establish a rival authority. This was the charge which they found it so easy to frame against Jesus when He and they were in the presence of Pilate: ‘forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king’ (Luke 23:2). No more powerful appeal could they have made to Pilate’s fears, as they thought, than when they cried out, ‘If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king, speaketh against Caesar’ (John 19:12). The title on the cross, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews’ (John 19:19), as Pilate actually wrote it, served him better than their proposed modification, ‘He said, I am king of the Jews’ (John 19:31). Should he ever be called in question by Caesar for giving Jesus up to death, that title, written out by his own hand, would form an ample justification. The greater probability lies in the supposition that Pilate so named Him to spite the Jews, in accordance with those other words, ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ (John 19:15). The whole attitude of Jesus towards Caesar, not only in the question of the tribute, but throughout the trial before Pilate, must have entirely disarmed the Roman governor of any fear that He was, or ever had been, a rival of Caesar’s.

J. Gordon Gray.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Caesar'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/c/caesar.html. 1906-1918.

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Thursday, January 17th, 2019
the First Week after Epiphany
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