A Roman family name that became a title. In 46 B.C.E., Gaius Julius Caesar was appointed dictator of Rome for ten years, but he was murdered in 44 B.C.E. Caesar was the name of his family (Gaius being his personal name and Julius that of his clan or house). The family name passed to his adopted son and ultimate successor Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian). Octavian established his rulership over the realm in 31 B.C.E., and in 27 B.C.E. he was accorded the title of Augustus by the Roman Senate, becoming known as Caesar Augustus.
Thereafter, the next four Roman emperors (Tiberius, Gaius [Caligula], Claudius, and Nero) laid claim to the name on the basis either of actual relationship or of adoption. The family name thus became so closely associated with the position of sovereign ruler that, even after the end of the Caesarean dynasty, the name was retained as a regal title equivalent to that of emperor, producing the later forms kaiser (German) and czar (Russian).
The Caesars ruling during the period covered by the Christian Greek Scriptures, along with their reigns and the major events of the Bible taking place during these, are listed on the accompanying chart. Of these, only three are mentioned by name in the Bible itself: Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius. For fuller discussion, see articles under their names.
God and Caesar. Jesus’ only recorded reference to Caesar is when laying down the principle: “Pay back, therefore, Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.” (Mt 22:17-21; Mr 12:14-17; Lu 20:22-25) The question evoking this statement was with regard to the payment of “head tax” by Jews to the Roman state. It therefore dealt with an established law or regular practice and hence neither the question nor the answer was evidently intended to be restricted to Tiberius, then ruling. (Compare Mt 17:25.) “Caesar” meant, or symbolized, the civil authority, the state, represented by its duly appointed representatives, called “the superior authorities” by Paul and expressed by Peter as “the king” and his “governors.”
Caesar’s “things” were therefore the payment due for services rendered by the secular government and for which services the government levied taxes or tribute. Despite its imperialistic nature, the Roman state provided numerous services for its subject peoples, including the construction of highways, and a form of mail service, as well as the maintenance of civil order and protection from criminal elements. The people paid for these services by taxes. This is underscored by Jesus’ reference to Caesar’s coin, called “the head tax coin.”
That “Caesar’s” authority to exact payment even from Christians could not be allowed to infringe upon the Christian’s service to God was shown by Jesus’ statement that ‘God’s things should be paid back to God.’ (Mt 22:21) Jesus’ apostles showed that they understood that their duty toward human authorities was limited, or relative, and not absolute, for when later brought before the Jewish high court they firmly declared: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men,” that is, when human laws or requirements clashed with those of God.
Jesus’ Trial. When Jesus was brought to trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, he was charged by the religious leaders with grave offenses: “subverting [the Jewish] nation and forbidding the paying of taxes to Caesar and saying he himself is Christ a king.” (Lu 23:1, 2) This three-pronged charge actually meant they were accusing Jesus of high treason or, as the Romans expressed it, crimen laesae majestatis (today called lèse-majesté). Pilate recognized this because later he said, “You brought this man to me as one inciting the people to revolt.” (Lu 23:13, 14) In 48 B.C.E., the law called lex Julia majestatis had made it an offense to engage in any activity against the sovereign power of Rome. This law was given broad application so that, by Jesus’ time, virtually any insult to Caesar or any activity giving an outward appearance of sedition could be the basis for the charge of treason. Tiberius, the Caesar then reigning, was particularly sensitive to criticism or opposition, and his rule was noted for the encouragement of “informers” who would bring accusations against supposed traitors.
Throughout the Roman Empire no king could rule without Caesar’s consent. Thus, Pilate, in questioning Jesus, apparently concentrated his interrogation on the issue of Jesus’ kingship. (Mt 27:11; Mr 15:2; Lu 23:3; Joh 18:33-37) Pilate endeavored to free Jesus as guiltless, but the Jewish leaders cried out: “If you release this man, you are not a friend of Caesar. Every man making himself a king speaks against Caesar.” (Joh 19:12) The term “friend of Caesar” was a title of honor often bestowed on provincial governors; but the Jewish leaders here evidently used it in a general way, implying that Pilate was laying himself open to the charge of condoning high treason. Fear of a jealous emperor was a factor influencing Pilate in pronouncing the death sentence on an innocent man. Meanwhile the priests loudly proclaimed their loyalty to the imperial throne, saying, “We have no king but Caesar,” thereby rejecting any theocratic rule. (Joh 19:13-16; compare Isa 9:6, 7; 33:22.) They objected in vain to the title “King of the Jews” that Pilate had placed on Jesus’ stake. (Joh 19:19-22) The Romans customarily posted a sign identifying the crime for which a criminal was condemned.
Paul’s Appeal and Imprisonment. When the Jewish religious leaders of Thessalonica formed a mob to try to stop the preaching of Paul and Silas, they also trumped up a similar charge of treason against the imperial throne. (Ac 17:1-9) By now Claudius (41-54 C.E.) was ruling as Caesar.
The remainder of the Biblical references to Caesar apply to Nero, who ruled from 54 to 68 C.E., when he committed suicide at about the age of 31. It was to Nero that Paul referred when on trial in Caesarea before Festus, evidently about 58 C.E. Paul denied any guilt due to acts against Caesar and refused to submit to a trial in Jerusalem, saying: “I am standing before the judgment seat of Caesar, where I ought to be judged. . . . I appeal to Caesar!” (Ac 25:1, 6-11) Paul was here exercising his rights as a Roman citizen. Such appeal to Caesar could be made either after the pronouncement of judgment or at any earlier point in the trial. Since Festus gave evidence of not wanting to decide the matter himself and since a trial in Jerusalem held virtually no hope of justice, Paul made this formal petition to be judged by the highest court of the empire. It appears that in some cases the appeal could be denied, as, for example, in the case of a thief, a pirate, or a seditionist caught in the act. Likely for this reason Festus conferred first with “the assembly of counselors” before admitting the appeal. The subsequent hearing before the visiting Herod Agrippa II was in order that Festus might have clearer information to submit in transmitting Paul’s case to “the August One,” Nero. (Ac 25:12-27; 26:32; 28:19) Paul’s appeal served a further purpose, that of taking him to Rome, fulfilling an intention expressed earlier. (Ac 19:21; Ro 15:22-28) Jesus’ prophetic promise and the angelic message later received both show divine direction in the matter.
It was apparently during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome that he wrote his letter to the Philippians (c. 60-61 C.E.). At the letter’s close, Paul includes the greetings of the brothers in Rome and “especially those of the household of Caesar.” (Php 4:21, 22) The term “household of Caesar” does not necessarily refer to the immediate family of Nero, then reigning, but may apply to those in government service, Caesar’s slaves and minor officials. Whether these Christians from Caesar’s household were products of Paul’s preaching is not stated. If his prison quarters were at all connected with the Praetorian Guard (Php 1:13), this would place him, and the preaching he there did, in the proximity of Nero’s palace, hence near many of the household of Caesar. (Ac 28:16, 30, 31) Whatever the manner of his meeting these Christians of Caesar’s household, they apparently had special interest in the brothers of Philippi. Since Philippi was a Roman colony with many retired soldiers and government servants, it may be that a number of the Christians there were related to or were friends of those on whose behalf Paul conveyed greetings.
A great fire ravaged Rome in 64 C.E., destroying about a fourth of the city. The rumor circulated that Nero was responsible and, according to Roman historian Tacitus, Nero tried to protect himself by placing the blame on the Christians. (The Annals, XV, XLIV) Mass arrests followed, and Christians as well as those suspected of being Christians were tortured, put to death in large numbers, some even being burned alive in public. This appears to have marked the start of a great wave of persecution, not from religious opposers, but from political sources bent on exterminating the Christian congregation. Likely Paul, who evidently was freed after two years of imprisonment in Rome (c. 59-61 C.E.), now experienced his second imprisonment (c. 65 C.E.). It is generally held that he thereafter was put to death at Nero’s order.
The Jewish revolt began in 66 C.E., two years before Nero’s death, but was not suppressed until 70 C.E. in the reign of Vespasian (69-79 C.E.). The apostle John is thought to have been exiled to the island of Patmos during the rule of Domitian (81-96 C.E.), a harsh opponent of Christianity.
[Chart on page 382]
Name Years of Major Biblical Events
Rule During Reign
Augustus 31 B.C.E.– Birth of John (the Baptizer);
(Octavian) 14 C.E. decree of registration, and
birth of Jesus at Bethlehem
(Lu 2:1); death of Herod
Tiberius 14-37 C.E. Ministries of both John and
Jesus (Lu 3:1); also their
deaths. Pentecost of 33 C.E. and
initial activity of newly
congregation. The conversion of
Gaius 37-41 C.E.
Claudius 41-54 C.E. Paul’s first two missionary
tours and part of third. A major
famine; Jews banished from Rome
Nero 54-68 C.E. Paul’s first trial in Rome.
official persecution against
Christians following the great
fire in Rome; likely also Paul’s
second trial and execution.
Beginning of Jewish revolt
Galba 68-69 C.E.
Otho 69 C.E.
Vitellius 69 C.E.
Vespasian 69-79 C.E. Destruction of Jerusalem
Titus 79-81 C.E.
Domitian 81-96 C.E. Exile of apostle John to
Patmos (Re 1:9)
Nerva 96-98 C.E.
Trajan 98-117 C.E. Bible canon likely completed
during first year of his reign