Render Unto Caesar . . .

 . . . that which is Caesar’s. So Jesus is reported in the Gospels as saying, and Christians have been arguing about what exactly he meant ever since. Readers of my book will of course know the answer. There was no Jesus living in the 1st Century AD. These words were put into a fictional character’s mouth by gospel writers struggling to make their new religion acceptable to the Roman Empire which threatened its very existence. In doing so however, they betrayed the real origins of their faith – in the rebellions against Roman taxation in Judaea during those years, led by Judas the Galilean, whose life informs so much of the gospel stories. The whole Bethlehem account of Christ’s birth, necessitated by a census, is but one example. The census did take place and it was for the purpose of administering efficient taxation; but almost everything else about the story is fictional. It has been argued by some believers that Jesus’ words are to be taken at face value: Christians should not concern themselves with the things of this world – pay your taxes like good, docile citizens and focus on the world that is to come. Others over the centuries have disagreed and seen these words as permitting and even encouraging tax resistance. Still, it all makes work for the working Biblical scholar to do, and it sounds so much more modern and relevant than arguing how many angels can balance on a pinhead. Or is it?

St Paul as ever had no doubts on the matter: "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God." The slippery Paul certainly knew how to survive in the Roman world! But as with so much in the Bible, none of this is of any help at all with the sort of real, complex moral and political dilemmas that we face in the 21st Century. Try reading Paul’s words (let alone Jesus’) to a Catalan independence rally in Barcelona. Or at a UKIP or Scottish Nationalist annual conference. Or to an IRA hardliner. The tough question that exercises us all in an age of Brexit is which ‘governing authority’ we are supposed to submit to. If the people of Catalonia - or anywhere else – want to be ruled differently, it is hard to see how the Bible offers any relevant guidance. The actual historical parallels perhaps offer more instruction. The Roman Empire offered ‘Pax Romana’ and a more civilised life to its conquered peoples in return for their utter submission to its laws, religions and customs. One way or another this bargain worked for several hundred years, but the Empire gradually lost its vigour through increasing corruption, nepotism and administrative incompetence until new, vital forces from without destroyed it. Ring any bells? While Europe slowly sinks under the weight of its own incompetence and smug satisfaction with its institutions, the new and vital economies of the East are rising against it. Arguing endlessly about Brexit, or Scottish Independence, or the balance of power in Northern Ireland, all just feels like re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.