Jesus’ Birth and the Emperor

First an apology. Last week I said I would post some resources and clearly I didn’t. I had internet connection problems over the past week that now, I’m glad to say, are resolved.

This week I would like to think about religion in the Roman Empire in the first century BCE. Of course people write entire books on this subject. Our discussion will by necessity be limited in scope.

One of the realities of first century Rome, that gives modern people problems is the lack of separation of religion and Antinous imperial cult Louvre Ma1781.jpgstate. It can be difficult for us to imagine living in a world where religion and politics meld together so completely. The Romans operated with a “the more the merrier” view about gods. They didn’t have a problem absorbing local gods into their system of belief. Jews, and later Christians, didn’t share this attitude and their insistence on one God was the cause of much conflict. Society in general had a sense of powerlessness in a world of  larger impersonal forces. But the Roman gods became a symbol of the Roman Empire and functioned as a way  to help the diverse population of the Roman Empire feel a sense of belonging.

Roman religious practices tended to focus on attaining the god’s blessing for daily life. There were a great variety of religions and beliefs. There were astrologers andpeople who performed magic charms and spells. People read entrails and consulted oracles. There were mystery cults with secret ceremonies and rituals. There were wondering teachers and healers. There were varieties of philosophies- Stoics, Cynics, Neo-Pythagoreans. And there was the Emperor cult.

It is important for us to understand something about the Emperor cult. If we don’t, we miss an important part of the nativity story’s message. What was obvious to people in the 1st century is not obvious to us today. As we think about the Emperor cult, we”ll find out what the first audience heard and what we very often miss altogether.

Ancient – and even not so ancient peoples commonly thought their  rulers ruled because the gods willed it. Kings and Emperors were the earthly representatives of the gods.  And so religion and politics could not be divided. Devotion to the Emperor held the empire together.  Emperors make the god’s presence, blessing and favor available to humans.

Over time, there was a move from declaring Roman emperors a god after their death ( which,by the way, makes their heir  the son of a god) to declaring the emperor a god during his lifetime. Monuments and temples to the emperor were built all over the empire. Religious festivals were developed for the Emperor and local religious festivals and practices were adapted to include the Emperor.

Festivals served and important function in Roman society. They were a time for the local elite reinforce their control of the local economy and to solidify their social status. Remember the Roman empire was heirarchical. Honor and social postion were crucial. One way the social, political, and religious elite ( these are overlaping categories and not three separate groups) maintained their status and control was by funding and controling religious feast days. Most people were desperately poor and the local imperial feast days were an occasion for a good meal. The rich also supplied the means for the citizenry to worship appropriately.  And to worship appropriately was to hope the gods would improve one’s life. Given the Roman heirarchical social and political structure, it would take an act of the gods to improve one’s life. The net effect of festivals was that the elite made sure the local community was dependent on their generosity.

Emperor August Louvre Ma1280.jpgAnd here is the important thing to grasp. Throughout the Roman Empire, festivals that celebrated Caesar as lord and savior of the world were held in every town and city of any significance.  Horace, writing during Augustus’ reign,           ” While Caesar stands guard, peace is assured, the peace no power can break.” The term “good news” or gospel was used when speaking of what the Emperor Augustus did as the one who brought peace and security to the world.  Savior was one of the titles of Caesar. Lord was another of his titles. Peace and salvation were what he brought to the world. Here are two examples.

(It is hard to tell) whether the birthday of the most divine Caesar is a matter of greater pleasure or benefit. We could justly hod it to be equivalent to the beginning of all things…:and he has given a different aspect to the whole world, which blindly would have embraced its own destruction if Caesar had not been born for the common benefit of all.”  Paullus Fabius Maximus  proconsul of Asia on proposing beginning the new year on Augustus’ birthday.


The most divine [Lord]…we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things. For when everything was falling into disorder, he restored order once more and gave to the whole worlds a new aura. Caesar, the common Good Fortune of all,..[t]he beginning of life and vitaltity…[A]ll the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year…Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence…has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us the emperor Augustus, whom Providence filled with virtue[power] for the welfare of humankind and who, being sent to us and our descendants a our Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and whereas, having become god-manifest, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times…in surpassing all the benefactors who preceded him…; and whereas the birthday of the god[Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel concerning him,[therefore let a new era begin from his birth].      Orientis graeci inscriptions selectae, Vol 2, ed. W. Dittenberger (Leipzig, 1903-5), no. 458. quoted in Horsley, Christmas Unwrapped: 116)

Savior is not a commonly used title for Jesus. Luke uses it twice, John once. *

So when the angels appear to the shepherds in the gospel according to Luke; it is being made clear-this is not the gospel according to Caesar.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,praising God and saying,” Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!  (Luke 2:10-11,13-14)

Do you see it? “a Savior, who is the Messiah”.  The good news is not Caesar Augustus’ birthday. The good news is the birth of the true Savior who is not a Roman emperor but the Messiah. The Savior is not Caesar, the Savior is the Messiah.

Do you see it? To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar is not Lord.

Do you see it? The reign of God is not found in the reign of human empires.

This is a bold political, religious and social statement. Read the Magnificat. Read the Benedictus. Remember last week when I wrote that ancient biographers put in speeches to ensure that their readers understood their message?

The author of the Nativity story in Luke has many things to tell us. But one thing the author wants to be sure we understand,this is not politics as usual.


 Guido Reni 002.jpg



 * At BibleGatewayyou can choose a translation and do a word search. In the NIV, Savior is used 24 times in the New Testament. It is found most frequently in Titus (six times) and 2 Peter (five times). Savior is used twice in Acts and three times in 1 Timothy and only once in Ephesians, Philipians, 2 Timothy, 1 John and Jude.

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