This is the conclusion to the blog that began with Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (I). In these two blogs we are looking at how the early Christians intentionally shaped the understanding of Christ and the Christmas story as a challenge to pagan and imperial Roman ideas concerning religion, creation, kingdoms and lords. For example, Christians came to read some of the Jewish prophets as writing for and speaking to the Gentiles to prepare them for the coming of the Christ, and they came to see even in pagan literature references, however oblique, to the coming of the Messiah.
“Finally, as we saw in the previous chapter, a major aspect of popular early Christian perceptions of Isaiah was undoubtedly his role as a prophet to the gentiles. In the patristic period the Book of Isaiah was much used in debates about one of the most intriguing gentile ‘messianic prophecies’, namely, the fourth Eclogue of Virgil, known as the ‘Pollio’. In language and imagery often strikingly close to Latin versions of Isaiah, this first-century BC poem, written in honour of the emperor Augustus, foretells the coming of an age of peace, a new heaven and a new earth, heralded by the appearance of a virgin (iam redit et virgo) and the birth of a boy (nascent puero), where mountains burst into song, trees and flowers grow up in wild places, and goats and lions live together in peace.
Constantine the Great and Augustine both claimed the fourth Eclogue as a gentile prophecy of Christ, using Isaiah as the proof…” (John Sawyer, THE FIFTH GOSPEL, ISAIAH IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, p 47)
The early Christians were so awed by the truth of the Gospel that they saw it supplanting and fulfilling not just Jewish prophecies or the promises of God in the Old Testament but also pagan religion and its oracles. As already mentioned, the Roman Empire had no separation of church and state but understood the truth about religion as being foundational to its very success. Thus the emperors’ own understanding of religion and divinity was essential to the well being of the empire.
“It was Augustus who established this dominant role for the emperor, and his divine power was conveyed through the various titles used for him. Divi Filius, meaning ‘Son of the Divine,’ or ‘Son of God,’ was his favorite title. This title appears on almost every coin that Augustus had minted. … Augustus was considered Son of God because he had a god for his father, Julius Caesar. Julius was deified upon his death by Augustus, thus also giving Augustus divine status. Another prominent title for Augustus was Dominus in Latin, or Kyrios in Greek, which means ‘Lord.’ … Another title for Augustus was Soter, meaning ‘Savior,’ a title conveying that he had saved the empire from instability and foreign powers for peace. Augustus was also Pontifex Maximus, ‘High Priest’… Such is the sketch of the dominant kingdom and king in Paul’s lifetime—the kingdom of Rome, the kingdom of Augustus, the kingdom of god. This divine king brought peace to the kingdom by means of military victory, and he was worshipped as a god by the people as a basic expression of loyalty to him.” (John Fotopoulos in THINKING THROUGH FAITH: NEW PERSPECTIVES FROM ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN SCHOLARS, p 25)
The Christian Gospel was a direct challenge to the commonly accepted ideas about the emperor and about religion. Thus Constantine’s embrace of Christianity was a true conversion for the empire. He came to accept the meta-narrative of Christianity as being the correct way to understand himself and the Roman Empire which he governed. This challenge to imperial and pagan religion began in the First Century of Christianity, when Christianity had no empire or army to support its claims.
Stanley Porter in his book, HEARING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, describes the Gospel of Mark as a direct challenge to the Roman Empire’s claim about Emperor Vespasian (reigned 69-79 AD). Even Jewish Historian Josephus (d. 100AD) claimed the Jewish scriptures foretold Vespasian’s coming to power. Porter claims Mark’s opening line to his Gospel (“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”) was written to oppose any idea that the Old Testament prophesied Vespasian as the savior:
“the Markan evangelist has challenged the imperial cult of the divine emperor… The Markan evangelist puts forward Jesus as the true Son of God, in whom the good news for the world really begins.”
Porter thinks Mark wrote his Gospel the same year that Vespasian came to power. Vespasian was
“regarded as divine, as savior, and as the beginning of the good news for the world. In many other inscriptions and papyri Augustus is referred to as ‘son of God.’ … The language is applied to Vespasian when he was acclaimed emperor. According to Josephesus, ‘every city celebrated the good news (evangelia)… the whole empire being now secured and Roman state saved.’” (Porter, pp 93-94)
St. Mark rejects the notion that any Roman Emperor, mere mortal, could be the savior of the world. The Roman Emperors’ reigns and ability to save the world were limited to their life on earth. Jesus is prcoclaimed in the Gospel as a King who rules forever, not from some earthly throne, but seated on God’s throne in heaven.
Thus the Christmas narrative though containing human description surrounding the birth of Jesus, was actually written to challenge both imperial claims and pagan myths. The Christmas story as written is a powerful message of God’s Kingdom which transformed the mistaken beliefs of an empire into a proclamation of the truth about God, government and creation.
See the addendum: Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (III)