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Jesus and Caesar

Did Caesar know who Jesus was?

: Portrait Head of Tiberius
: Portrait Head of Tiberius

Q. The Gospels mention Caesar many times. It is clear that Jesus knew who Caesar was and the power that he held. But did Caesar know of Jesus? Did he ever hear about him or the giant movement that he had created?

A. Correct: Jesus knew who Caesar was. But there is no evidence that Tiberius—the emperor from 14-37 C.E. when Jesus was active—knew about Jesus. Nor is it likely that he would. While the Gospels present Jesus as having a big impact on crowds, Galilee and Judea were far from Rome and of limited significance in the larger empire. And governor Pilate did not need to clear a crucifixion with the boss in Rome before proceeding.

The Gospels actually do not refer specifically to the emperor very often. The “paying the tax to Caesar” scene accounts for two thirds of the references to the emperor (12 times total: Matt 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26).  Luke 2:1 refers to a census authorized by the emperor Augustus (though it’s doubtful there was such a census). Luke 3:1 mentions the emperor Tiberius to locate John the Baptist’s ministry. The remaining four references occur during the accounts of Jesus’ death. Jesus is charged with forbidding the payment of taxes to the emperor (Luke 23:2). In John 19:12-15, the chief priests tell Pilate he is no friend of the emperor if he releases Jesus and then they declare: “we have no king but the emperor.”

While there aren’t many references to the emperor in the Gospels, they do evoke the presence and impact of the empire in lots of other ways including personnel (soldiers, tax-collectors, landowners, slaves, governors etc.) and social experiences (poverty, hunger, disease etc.).

Some later Roman writers suggest that several emperors came to know about Jesus and his followers long after his activity. Governor Pliny receives reports about Jesus-followers and writes to the emperor Trajan about what to do with them around 111-112 C.E. And Tacitus (writing around 115-117 C.E.) narrates that the emperor Nero blamed Jesus-followers for the fire in Rome in 64 C.E. Tacitus says Nero punished many, but he overstates the situation (to make Nero look bad) as there weren’t huge numbers of Jesus-followers in the 60s.

  • Warren Carter

    Warren Carter is Meinders Professor of New Testament  at Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa OK. He is the author of numerous books, including What Does Revelation Reveal? (Abingdon, 2011), John and Empire: Initial Explorations (Continuum, 2008), and The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2006).