The picture that accompanies this article is taken from the reverse side of the "tribute penny" given to Jesus. The story goes that on the Tuesday just before his crucifixion and resurrection, the religious leaders met our lord with a series of questions, including one about tribute to Caesar. You will find this account in the Bible: Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:12-17, and Luke 20:20-26.
The Greek word for "penny" is denarius, a Roman coin. The Tiberius denarii are all similar. The front side (the obverse) shows Tiberius Caesar, the emperor, when Christ was crucified. He had reigned for almost twenty years, so many denarii in circulation would have been his, and the coin they brought to Jesus probably looked exactly like this.
Although Jesus focused on the front, the back also is interesting. The seated woman may be Livia (wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius), Justitia (goddess of justice), or Pax (goddess of peace). Given the religious inscription, it might be Livia portrayed as a goddess.
The inscription "PONTIF MAXIM" is a shortened version of "Pontifex Maximus," the high priest of the idolatrous Roman state religion (ironically, the popes now informally use this title). (On the coin above, the "P," "O," and "N" in the word Pontif seem to be damaged or worn.) By the time of Tiberius, the emperor was the high priest. "PONTIF MAXIM" on the coin claimed imperial authority over worship.
The image on the front of the coin (below) is Tiberius Caesar with a laurel wreath. The Romans held a "triumph" to celebrate military victories, a parade to display the captives and spoils of war and honor the victors. The conquering commander would wear a laurel wreath. The coin commemorates Caesar's authority as a conqueror.
By asking, "Whose is this image?" Jesus drew their attention to this image and forced them to acknowledge it as Caesar's.
The picture below is the obverse or the front side of the "tribute penny." The inscription is "TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS," an abbreviation of "TIBERIVS CAESAR DIVI AVGVSTI FILIVS AVGVSTVS" — "Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus." When Caesar Augustus died, the Roman senate voted to make him a god. Now we (you and I) know that you cannot be voted into divinity, but the Romans did it frequently. Caligula did not even wait to die but made himself a god through proclamation. It got to be expected for the head of the Roman Empire also to be the High Priest of the Empire's religion.
When Jesus handled that coin, he knew it represented a pagan religion, corrupt with man's arrogance. He wanted to keep the two religions separate; thus, his famous ruling (Matthew 22:21) "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
The Greeks were no better. Philip II of Macedon (Alexander's the Great's father) was rumored to be the prodigy of his mortal mother, Queen Olympias, and the God Zeus. In those days, it was common to believe that certain kings of known repute were sort of like Hercules, born of a mortal woman and sired by a god. Philip II fell into this category. Consequently, when Philip II was assassinated, Alexander the Great became the leader of the Greeks and the chief priest of the Greek religion. When Alexander died in 323 BCE, his four generals divided the conquered lands. The two most influential were the Ptolemies of Egypt and Seleucus of Mesopotamia and Persia. The Ptolemies became Pharaohs with kingship duties rolled into pastoral responsibilities. Seleucus followed suit.
The two great civilizations of the ancient world had their supreme leader as both the King and the high priest. Under these civilizations, one mortal man, with all of his vices and bias, controlled the path of divinity for their people. Results from both the Roman and Greek civilizations show that kings saddled with religious power end up morally bankrupt. The 19th-century British politician. Lord Acton summarized the predicament in 1887: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Judaism was different
The Jews of Israel almost fell into the same trap. The history of the Jews shows that when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt around 1500 BCE, part of the law given to Moses at Sinai granted Aaron the priesthood for himself and his male descendants. From Aaron sprang the Levites, the priestly clan that provided the priestly duties for the Jews. Until the first century AD, the Jews kept their kings separate from being high priests.
The Seculids had captured Jerusalem from the Ptolemies in the 2nd century BCE and subjected the Jewish nation to religious atrocities. Even at one time, a statue of Zeus had been placed in the Jewish temple. Israel, being a captured territory, did not have a king, but they did have a high priest, leading the revolt.
Thirty-seven years later, the eldest son of that high priest and now a high priest himself, Judah Aristobulus I, in 104 BCE, was anointed King and for the first time, the ruler of the Jews had equal rank with the Greeks and Romans.
Many groups opposed the King being the high priest. Eventually, the titles were separated again, with one of the King's sons given the Kingship and the other son was given the High Priest designation. That separation has traveled down through history as Western values include separation of church and state.
What about Islam?
Muhammad was both a lawgiver and by virtue of direct communication with the angel Gabriel, the head of religious doctrine. While the Prophet admired Moses a lot (he is mentioned in the Qur'an 136 times), he did not note that Moses was not the chief priest. He thought Moses was someone to emulate, and he did, passing laws, administering justice, and leading his people out of the wilderness.
After Muhammad died, the caliphs that immediately followed positioned the job as one of King and high priest. However, over the centuries, some of the caliphs were kings in name only left only with theocratic duties. In summary, the caliph is supposed to be both King and high priest. The King is the one to provide governing functions, while the high priest is the one to direct God's religious worship and interpretation. People with that much power can be easily corrupted. Of course, those in that position would deny that possibility, but all we have to do is look at history and see the kings and queens who failed their people.