by Doug Ward

  In our family ``small group'' Bible study, we enjoy reading one or more of the gospels each winter as we prepare for the Paschal season.  For example, last year we studied Luke and John, and this year we are reading Mark.  Over a period of several weeks, we revisit the accounts of Jesus' teaching and miracles, His crucifixion and resurrection. 

The gospel narratives are very familiar to us by now, but there is always more to learn from them.  Different questions arise each year--about obscure passages, parables that we have heard interpreted in several different ways, and the details of life and thought in first-century Judaea.  Ultimately, most of our questions stem from the simple fact that we are so far removed, both chronologically and culturally, from the world of Jesus and His disciples.   Our sheer distance from that era and location inevitably causes some blurring of our perception of those remarkable events of nearly two thousand years ago. 

Fortunately, more and more resources are available today to help us bridge this great gulf of time and culture.  In Jerusalem and elsewhere, Christian and Jewish scholars have been collaborating to gain deeper insight into the world of the New Testament, often aided by the Dead Sea Scrolls and other textual and archaeological discoveries.  The work of such scholars can bring many biblical passages into clearer focus. In this article, I would like to share some particularly striking insights into the teachings of Jesus that  I have learned about recently.  Examples like these can help us to appreciate why Jesus' audiences were often ``amazed at his teaching'' (Mark 1:22, NIV).  


Caesar's Coin

  ``Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and to God the things which be God's.''  These words of Jesus from Luke 20:25, as recorded in English in the King James Version, are very well known.  They are often cited to make the point that Christians have responsibilities in both the  civil and  religious realms:  We pay our tithes, and we pay our taxes. We are citizens of God's Kingdom, but we still have obligations to fulfill as members of the earthly kingdoms in which we live.   

This is a valid interpretation (see also Rom. 13:1-7, I Peter 2:13-17), but it may not capture the full force of Jesus' statement. Ball [1] and Buth[2] suggest that He actually may have had a much stronger point in mind. To grasp His words more fully, let's review their context.

Jesus made His famous statement in response to the question of whether one ought to pay taxes to Caesar (Luke 20:22).  This question was intended  to put Jesus in a ``no-win'' situation.  If He answered ``yes,'' then He would be discredited in the eyes of His followers by acknowledging the legitimacy  of the hated government of the pagan Romans.  On the other hand, if He answered ``no,'' then He would be guilty of treason and could be reported to the Roman authorities (v. 19-21).                        

Jesus recognized the ulterior motives behind the question (v. 23), and He replied in typically Jewish fashion with a query of his own.   1   After having His questioners produce a coin, He asked them whose image it bore (v. 24).When they answered, ``Caesar's,'' He countered with the famous reply of verse 25. 

Now we are in a position to comprehend verse 25 more deeply.  The coin bore Caesar's image-but what bears God's image?  Answer:  We do!  (Gen.1:26-27)    Jesus was saying that the money Caesar asks for is of little consequence compared to what God demands:  our whole lives.

Would Jesus' listeners have understood His words in this way?  There is evidence that they would have, based on what is known about first-century Jewish culture.  In support of such an interpretation, Dr. Randall Buth[2]  offers a story about Rabbi Hillel the Elder (c. 70 B.C.-c. 10 A.D.), the most  prominent Pharasaic teacher of the generation before Jesus.  In this story, Hillel announces to his disciples that he is going to perform a mitzvah  -i.e., obey a commandment or fulfill God's will.  His disciples ask what  he plans to do, and he replies that he is going to take a bath.  When his disciples wonder how taking a bath can be classed as a mitzvah, Hillel explains that the Romans made sure that their idols were kept clean and polished.  How much more, then, should we take care of ourselves, since we bear the image of the one true God?     

Buth observes that the above story would have been well-known to Jesus' questioners, much as, for example, the story of the young George Washington  chopping down his father's cherry tree is familiar to Americans.  There is every reason to believe, then, that Jesus was speaking in Luke 20:25 about  a total commitment of our lives to God, and that those who heard Him would  have grasped this meaning.  No wonder ``they marvelled at his answer, and held their peace'' (verse 26). 

Buth, who works with Wycliffe Bible Translators, suggests that a good English translation of verse 25 would thus be,  ``The thing that Caesar has made, give to Caesar; the thing that God has made, give to God.''  

This deeper understanding of Jesus' words is especially relevant to us today (see [1]).  In response to the demands of our hectic world, we tend to compartmentalize our lives, putting our duties as citizens in a separate  ``box'' from our commitments as Christians.  Luke 20:25 tells us that our commitment to God is more than just one among several demands on our time; instead, it should be the center of our existence, forming the basis for our approach to all of life's activities. 


``And You Shall Love'' Times Three

  In the gospels, we find that Jesus was often addressed as ``Rabbi'' or``Master''  (e.g., John 1:38,49; 3:2,26; Matt. 19:16; 27:36; Luke 12:13;19:39; 20:27-28).   ``Rabbi'' was not an official title in Jesus' time-a precise definition of  the term came later, after the destruction of the Second Temple-but it was  a term used for respected teachers. 

Scholars sometimes refer to the Jewish teachers of the first century as  ``proto-rabbis;'' and in fact, Jesus is the ``proto-rabbi'' about whom the  most has been written.  The gospels turn out to be a key source for researchers,  Jewish as well as Christian, who are studying Jewish teaching methods of the  Second Temple period [4], and such investigators have recognized that Jesus  was a master of Jewish teaching principles and techniques.  Another familiar  account from Luke's gospel provides an interesting example.   

In Luke 10:25, an expert in Torah challenged Jesus with the question,  ``Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?'' (KJV) Characteristically, Jesus asked the questioner for his opinion on the matter, and the expert responded  by quoting the ``great commandments'' of Deut. 6:5 and Lev.19:18.              

It is no accident that the questioner juxtaposed these two particular verses.  In addition to being central principles, the two commands share a common phrase, translated ``And thou shalt love'' in King James English.  In those  days, interpreters of  Scripture would often combine two verses that included  a common phrase and use each to shed light upon the other.  This technique,   known as G'zerah Shevah (``equivalence of expressions''), was one of seven principles of interpretation that had been formulated by Hillel, the famous teacher mentioned above.   2  

Jesus, then, may well have been expecting the reply given by  the legal  expert.  Skillful teachers often draw out answers from their students, guiding  them to reach conclusions on their own.  In [2], Buth speculates that a connection  between Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 could have been ``in the air'' at that time.   For instance, Buth points out that these verses had been considered together  in at least one intertestamental source, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. 

In any case, Jesus endorsed the legal expert's answer (Luke 10:28).  His  questioner then asked, ``And who is my neighbour?'' and Jesus responded with  the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, which gives a powerful illustration  of what it means to love one's neighbor.

Interestingly, in this case Jesus may have been making further use of the principle of G'zerah Shevah.  The Hebrew phrase shared by Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 appears in two other places in the Pentateuch:  Deut. 11:1 and Lev. 19:34.  The latter verse is clearly related to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the NIV, it is rendered, ``The alien living among you must be treated as one of your native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.''                                       

Jesus' skillful application of G'zerah Shevah in the parable of  the Good Samaritan probably added to the impact that the parable had on His  questioner.  Although the parable does not directly quote Lev. 19:34, it would have reminded the Torah expert of this verse and underscored its connection with Lev. 19:18.  Luke 10: 25-37 graphically demonstrates Jesus' facility with the teaching techniques of His day. 


A Word to the Wise....

  In Jesus' time, when few written copies of the Hebrew Scriptures were available,  many Jews committed large portions of the Scriptures to memory.As a result,  Jesus spoke to audiences that possessed a high level of biblical literacy, including professionals (like the one in Luke 10:25-37) who tried to match wits with Him.  To such audiences, Jesus could communicate powerful messages with a minimum of verbiage.  According to Joseph Frankovic [3],a modern student of ancient Jewish teaching techniques, ``Jesus liked to hint at a verse of Scripture by lifting vocabulary from it.  By doing so, he was able to marshal the full force of the verse's context with only a word or two.'' 

One example cited in [3] is from Luke 11:14-20, where Jesus was accused  of casting out demons by means of demonic powers.  Jesus concluded His reply  in v. 20 with the words, ``But if I with the finger of God cast out devils,  no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.'' Here the phrase``with the  finger of God'' is an allusion to the words of Pharaoh's magicians in Exodus  8:19.  When the magicians could not duplicate the plague of gnats, they were  forced to acknowledge that God was responsible for this miracle.  With His  brief reference to Ex. 8:19,  Jesus was, in effect,  asking his opponents,  ``If those pagan sorcerers could recognize God's power, why can't you?''

Another example in which a few words carry great significance is Jesus' cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-46;John 2:13-17). In Luke 19:45-46 (KJV), we read that


``...he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein,  and them that bought; Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house  of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.''      


  Here Jesus was making allusions to two passages.  The phrase ``My house is the house of prayer'' comes from Isa. 56:7, which says, ``for mine house shall  be called an house of prayer for all people.''  Hearing this phrase would have reminded Jesus' listeners of the noble purpose of the Temple and the mission God had given to Israel.       

On the other hand, the phrase ``but ye have made it a den of thieves'' is a reference to Jeremiah 7:11:  ``Is this house, which is called by my name,  become a den of thieves in your eyes?  Behold, even I have seen it, saith  the Lord.''   In this passage, God called the Jews to repentance, rebuking them for their complacent, superstitious confidence that the presence of the Temple in their midst would protect them from the national captivity that had earlier befallen the House of Israel.  In Jer. 7:12, He reminded them of the sanctuary at Shiloh, which earlier had been destroyed as a result of the sins of Eli's sons Hophni and Phinehas.  Then in v. 14-15, He proclaimed,   


``Therefore will I do unto this house, which is called by my name, wherein ye trust, and unto the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, as I have cast out all your brethren, even the whole seed of Ephraim.''


  Jesus' reference to Jer. 7:11 would have brought the entire message of Jeremiah 7 to the minds of those who heard Him.  When we realize this, we can see that Jesus was doing more here than simply rebuking the vendors in the temple precincts. He was also warning the Temple authorities that the Second Temple could be destroyed, just as Solomon's Temple had been.  As a result, ``the chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy him'' (Luke 19:47).  They perceived a threat to their livelihood in Jesus' words.             

One additional note:  Frankovic [3] observes that the combination of allusions to Isaiah and Jeremiah in Luke 19:46 may be yet another instance of G'zerah Shevah, since in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, Isa. 56:7 and Jer. 7:11 share the phrase ``my house''.   In Luke19:45-46, we again see Jesus making skillful use of the teaching techniques of  His day to produce maximum impact upon His audience.     

Learning more about the background of the Gospels can help us come to a more complete understanding of their message.  When we fully grasp the meaning of the words of Jesus, the Master Teacher, in their original context, we can more effectively apply them in our own lives.   




1.       David T. Ball, ``The things that are God's: Reflections on Caesar's Coin.'' Christian Century, November 11, 1998, pp. 1046-1047.

2.       Randall Buth, ``Listening to Jesus, the Master Teacher,'' lecture series given on November 6-7, 1998, at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Kettering,  Ohio.  (Tapes of these lectures are available from the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, P.O. Box 293040, Dayton, OH 45429-9040.)

3.       Joseph Frankovic, ``Remember Shiloh!''Jerusalem Perspective , Vol. 46/47 (1994), pp. 24-29.

4.      Dwight A. Pryor, ``Our Hebrew Lord,'' tape series available from the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, P.O. Box 293040, Dayton, OH 45429-9040.                  




  1 A joke about this proclivity runs as follows:  Why do Jewish teachers always answer a question with a question?  Answer:  What's wrong with that?                    

2 On the internet, a list and discussion of these principles can be found, for example, at


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