Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (I)

One aspect of the Gospel narratives concerning the nativity of Jesus Christ which historians especially point out is that the Evangelists tell the story to clearly compete with and challenge the claims which the Roman Empire had begun to make concerning their emperors.  While today, the popular portrayal of Christmas in crèche and card emphasizes the humanism of the story – the babe, the traveling/homeless holy family, the manger – the Gospel writers were sounding a challenge to the Roman imperial and religious claims of that day.  Challenging Roman authority in this way was not without its own risks to the Christians – that is part of the story we miss when we only focus on what we like in the story.  For the nativity of Christ also brought suffering – Herod slaughters the innocent children in an effort to kill the Christ child.  All of the claims of Jesus being Lord and King will be brought against Jesus at his trial when his death is demanded because He is portrayed as a threat to Caesar.  For example,

“The following was found chiseled on the ruins of an old government building in Asia Minor, dated 6 BC:

‘The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things . . . for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura;  Caesar . . . the common good Fortune of all . . . The beginning of life and vitality . . . All 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 . . .who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order;  and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest /PHANEIS/, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times . . . the birthday of the god (Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of good news /EVANGELION/ concerning him.’”   (Shane Claiborne, JESUS FOR PRESIDENT, p 70)

Here we read chiseled in stone that from his birth, Caesar Augustus is proclaimed to be divine, Savior, God manifest, and the beginning of the Good News (Evangelion).  These are all titles the Gospel writers apply to Jesus Christ.  The Romans had laid claim to these titles for their Emperor first;  the Christian Gospel writers take these claims and apply them to Jesus.   Thus there is a theological war taking place with opposing claims being made.  Which is true?  Who is Lord, Jesus or Caesar?

Another inscription, The Priene calendar inscription (9BCE), also from about the time of Christ’s birth but written decades before the Gospels were recorded reads:

“… since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior (soter), both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (epiphanein) … since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world that came by reason of him…”  (Stanley Porter, HEARING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, p 93)

The Romans were beginning to deify their emperors, proclaiming each to be an epiphany and a savior, a king of peace.  Augustus declared his father a god, making himself of course the son of God.   It was against these imperial claims that the Gospel writers recorded the story of God proclaiming Christ His Son, not the human son trying to make his father into a god.

In the 4th Century the Christians continued to challenge Roman imperial claims as well as the claims of Roman religions.   For example, the exact birthday of Jesus is not known, which would seem to fit the claims of the story  – he is born into poverty and peasantry, so who would have recorded the date?   As the Christians increasingly understand the implications of the claims that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, they began to challenge the pagan claims about the universe.  And so the Christians intentionally took on the claims of the birth of the Invincible Sun (held on December 25.  Some also claim this was the birthday of Mithras, a deity whose worship was extremely popular among Roman soldiers) and declared that the real birth that mattered was that of Jesus Christ not of the sun.  Thus the Christians boldly put forth that the Creator of the Universe should be worshipped, not things of creation, like the sun which is a star not a god.  In this sense Christians defied  pagan superstitions about the universe, and really advocated for scientific truth as a subtopic under the truth about God.    Unfortunately today, some Christians who limit their thinking by biblical literalism fear those who deny December 25 as Christ’s birthday and rather claim it was merely a pagan feast hijacked by the Christians.  Indeed the Christians intentionally took the date of the pagan feast, but did it because they believed in the truth of the Gospels and wanted to transform the superstitious ideas of the pagans into a search for the truth about God.   But certainly the Christians were not interested in replacing one set of mythology with another, rather they were aiming to move away completely from mythological claims about the nature of the universe, away from pantheism, to a clear understanding of the difference between creation and Creator.   This was not an effort to design creation science, but rather to help everyone see all truth about creation and the spirit world as pointing to the One Creator.

Next:  Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (II)