Review: Render Unto Caesar

Render Unto Caesar
The Struggle Over Christ and Culture in the New Testament

By John Dominic Crossan
(New York: HarperOne, 2022), 290 pp., 3 figures, $28.99 (hardcover), $12.99 (ebook).
Reviewed by Zeba Crook

For the Freedom of Zion

Every book is a product of its time and place. This book’s time and place? The fierce political, cultural, and theological polarization that characterizes contemporary America. The author, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, seeks to explore the precarious balance between secular culture and religion, using as his stepping off point Jesus’s rebuke of Peter for his focus on human (rather than divine) concerns (Mark 8:33).

Commendably, Crossan does not fall into the common modern fallacy of equating Jesus’s distinction between ta tou Theou (“the [things] of God”) and ta Kaisaros (“the [things] of Caesar”) with an anachronistic separation of church and state (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25). Recognizing that such a separation is impossible, Crossan counsels the reader to understand the two Greek phrases very broadly, to include the cultural and political power (rule) of God and the cultural and political power (rule) of Caesar.

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Crossan’s work is more biblical theology than biblical scholarship, in that his main purpose is to address whether contemporary Christians can “live in a single world with both God and Caesar.” He presents two well-known but problematic answers that the New Testament provides to this question (demonization and acculturation), and a preferable answer (confrontation) that is actually found outside of early Christian literature.

The first problematic approach is to demonize “the things of Caesar.” This attitude is promoted in the Book of Revelation, which ardently imagines the cataclysmic, ruthless, and vengeful slaughter of its opponents. The writer of Revelation warns that Rome is so dangerous, so evil, and so untrustworthy that embracing Roman culture is unimaginable. Because Rome is utterly doomed to God’s eventual wrath, wholesale rejection of Rome is the only feasible option.

The second problematic approach appears in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, which Crossan argues must be read as an integrated single work. Luke-Acts promotes a wholesale acculturation to Rome: Rome is the future, the way forward for Christianity. The result is an inevitable but also fruitful Romanized Christianity.

Both approaches are problematic for different reasons: demonization because it is unhistorical (God did not slaughter the Romans, as promised) and acculturation because it made Christians turn away from justice to fit into the Roman imperial order. Demonization and acculturation are mutually exclusive and wholly contradictory. The way out for contemporary Christians can be found in a third option, which Crossan provocatively finds outside of the New Testament.

The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus situates Jesus in a trajectory of messianic criticism of Rome, one that involves nonviolent resistance. In Crossan’s opinion, nonviolent resistance does not demonize, because it promotes a view of God as more interested in redistributive justice and forgiveness than bloodthirsty vengeance. Neither, obviously, does nonviolent resistance canonize or wholly embrace criticizes, and holds at arm’s length. It is motivated more by the desire for justice than for either victory or peaceful coexistence.

In today’s America, Christians argue endlessly and sometimes brutally with each other over how the Bible is best deployed as the solution to all the country’s perceived problems. Various sides can cite the Bible to defend their positions on political, economic, and cultural policy; each side represents itself as the more authentically Christian. However, in the end I wonder: Is the root of the problem really deciding whose view of the Bible is more (or less) valid, responsible, or scholarly? Or is the real problem perhaps the very act of trying to use an ancient and culturally distant text to address modern issues in the first place?

The irony is that though Crossan promotes an approach to cultural engagement that critically resists acculturation (like Josephus’s Jesus), this book actually represents wholesale acculturation to the American culture wars. Like the Maccabees, who raged against acculturation to Hellenism despite using Greek language, rhetoric, and logic to do so, Crossan shows himself to be wholly acculturated when he accepts the rules of engagement in contemporary debates over the Bible’s place in American society. Critical resistance to this culture would perhaps mean not merely reading and interpreting the Bible differently, as Crossan has done, but rather showing why the Bible should not be used to shape modern social, political, and economic policy.

Zeba Crook is Professor of Religion at Carleton University in Ottawa. His research focuses on Christian origins and the historical Jesus in the context of the ancient Mediterranean social world.

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