Caesar Augustus, The Roman Context of the Birth of Christ

caesar augustus

Resource:  Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity 3rd. ed.

The birth of Jesus Christ is the event on the Gregorian calendar that split time.  In an increasingly secular society the calendar is divided between BCE (before common era) and CE (current or “christian” era).  Yet until recently the eras of the calendar were counted in relation to Christ, Before Christ or B.C. and A.D. or Anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. 
For the next three weeks we will be looking at the Christmas story from a different perspective, a historical one.  Most people are familiar with the Gospel narratives, found in Matthew and Luke, of the birth of Christ, but relatively few have heard the story of what the world was like when Jesus was born.  We read Luke 2:1, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus . . .”  What were “those days” like?  Who was Caesar Augustus?  Luke’s early readers would not and could not have read the Christmas narratives without its historical context.  Many of us, for generations, have read the Christmas story with no historical context.  By doing so we are missing a great deal of the impact of the message that Luke and Matthew were trying to convey.  As a result we have adopted a vanilla form of Christianity that is disconnected from its historical and textual roots.  In the end what we preach, I fear, is no gospel at all.

To remedy this we will explore the historical context of the Christmas narratives, through this series, The Last Days of B.C., and by doing so gain a greater understanding of the gospel message the Biblical writers were seeking to convey.  My prayer is that by recovering this story we will also recover the gospel of Jesus Christ in its proclamation and in our devotion. 
Christianity emerged out of three historical contexts:
  1. The Greek world which provides the educational and philosophical context.
  2. The Jewish world which provides the religious context.  It is from this context from which Christianity emerges.
  3. The Roman world which provides the political and economic context.  It is in this context that Christianity spreads.
This week we will discuss the Roman context in the last days of B.C.  It is this Roman world that Luke notes in Luke 2:1.  Next week we will discuss the Jewish context in the last days of B.C.
Outside of its Judaic roots in the Old Testament, Christian history covers roughly 330 B.C. (Alexander the Great) to 330 A.D. (Constantine).  The period from 330 B.C. to 30 B.C., Alexander to Augustus, is known as the Hellenistic Age and is the story of how Rome came to be.
Before Alexander we have the very Old Testament landscape with its various empires (Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, etc.).  But with Alexander we have the rise of the Greeks and the unification of the world.  Prior to Alexander, Greece had risen to prominence as it became the cultural elite of the world through philosophy.  But it was not until Alexander began to conquer the world that Greek culture actually began to spread to foreign lands.
This Greek ideal was known as Hellenism.  Because Athens was the center of this new age of thought, dominated by speech and reason, the movement was given the appropriate name Hellenism as educated Greeks were known as Hellenes.  Greeks were no longer simply Greek by birth, but by education.  They were not bound by genealogy but by culture.  In this way, the various nations of the Mediterranean world slowly became “Greek" or Hellenized.  We see this in Paul’s writings as he does not specify ethnicities when he speaks of the power of the gospel to save, he simply states that the gospel is the power of God to save the Jew first and also the Greek (Rom. 1:16). 

When Alexander died three dynasties emerge from three of his prominent generals:
1.       Ptolemaic – Egypt
2.       Seleucid – Persia, Syria, and Asia
3.       Antigonid – Macedonia
Ptolemy I brought Hellenism to Egypt by founding the great library in Alexandria (one of only three cities with Greek names in Egypt at the time).  Unter the Ptolemies Alexandria becomes a cultural, educational, and spiritual epicenter for the Greek world.  Historically and Biblically, Alexandria is important to the church because a vital manuscript family is born there from the meticulous scribes who copy the Scriptures.
  • Seleucus I (358-280) worked to secure Babylonian regions of the empire.  He had control of the whole region as far as India by 312 BC.  Some notable Seleucid successors, pertinent to the last days of B.C. include: 
  • Antiochus III, or The Great (223-187 BC) - the Seleucids begin to expand and overtake the Ptolemaic/Egyptian territories.
  • Antiochus IV or Epiphanes (175-163) - the fight for Egypt intensifies.  As Epiphanes establishes control of new territories he brings a “Hellenized” version of relgion with him.  Which is why the most notable structure in Ephasus was the Temple of Artemis instead of Diana (an ancient Roman goddess), by which it was formerly known.  Artemis was a nature goddess of the Greeks.  The story of Antiochus Epiphanes will provide a critical backdrop for next week's content as we discuss the Jewish context in the last days of B.C.
It is from this strife between the factions that Rome begins to emerge.  Moving into the final two centuries of B.C. Rome is a loose collection of city states with common law and culture.  The land was conquered by armies.  The people were conquered by culture, but the empire began to emerge when Rome solidified its control as it captured the gods.  Rome absorbed foreign lands by not only taxing and educating them, but by absorbing their dieties.  The final step of Hellinization was to “Romanize” the foreign gods by promising them greater devotion if they would join the Roman pantheon.  Once in the Pantheon Rome not only influenced economies and powers, but also garnered religious devotion. 
Rome is the Greek word for “strength.”  Yet as B.C. drew to a close there was more work to do before Rome would truly be the strong empire that was essentially Alexander’s Hellenistic vision.

The formalization of Rome came after about a century of civil war with first indications of unsettledness arising in 133 B.C.  After 100 years of civil war three powers emerge:
1.       Julius Caesar
2.       Crassus
3.       Pompey
This arrangement of power is known as the First Triumvirate, but the balance was quickly upset.  Crassus died unexpectedly leaving Julius and Pompey as rivals.  The Roman senate fueled the rivalry by formally positioning Pompey against Caesar.  Caesar invaded Italy (Pompey’s territory) in 49.  By 48 Caesar was sole ruler of the Roman world.  But with many fearing the end of the republic, Caesar had his rivals and Pompey was not without his allies.  On the Ides of March, 44 B.C., Caesar was attacked by 60 men before the members of the Roman Senate and was stabbed 23 times.  A painting by Jean-Leon Gerome depicts the Roman Senators celebrating as they abandon Caesar’s mutilated body.
The result of the assassination was not as hoped.  The republic would not be restored.  One historian has said, “They had planned the assassination well, but they had planned little else.”  Instead of a new Republic, Rome received the 2nd Triumvirate.  It was led by:
1.       Octavian – nephew and adopted heir of Julius (since Julius had no son)
2.       Mark Antony – Caesar’s chief lieutenant
3.       Lepidus – former governor of Spain
The 2nd Triumvirate dissolved as Lepidus was quickly accused of usurping authority against Octavian.  He was stripped of his power in 36 BC and exiled.  The dismissal of Lepidus left only a rivalry between Mark Antony and Octavian.
Mark Antony had an infamous affair with Cleopatra of Egypt.  He was portrayed by Octavian as one aligning with Egypt against Rome.  Octavian not only won public opinion, but he also won on the battlefield.  Antony and Cleopatra were defeated at Actium in 31 B.C.  Both committed suicide in 30.
The end result was a Rome very tired of strife and desperate for peace.  The other result was that Octavian was left alone with power and with the duty of establishing a new constitution.  Through a crafty campaign of propaganda, Octavian convinced the war weary Romans to centralize power in him.  The result was a power in a man the Romans had yet to see.  By 27 B.C. Octavian had absolute control, money, an army, and extra/super constitutional powers. 
A new name was given to Octavian.  He would no longer be known as Caius Julius Octavius.  Because the name Octavian was associated with bloodshed, he would garner a new name to acknowledge his accomplishments.   From now on he would be Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus which means roughly, the Emperor (or supreme citizen), son of God, Augustus.
The name Augustus is difficult to define, but in general it is an acknowledgment that Octavian was more than human.  The name Augustus confirms only that there was no sufficient category to appropriately acknowledge him.  In Augustus was the merger of man and god as one.  To obtain real control Octavian knew that he must not only have Rome’s money and army, he must also have her gods.  With his joining of the pantheon, the Caesar would forever be the human incarnation of god ruling over men.
To spread the news of Augustus’ coronation a euangelion, a pronouncement of good news was written.  You and I are most familiar with the English interpretation of the Greek term euangelion, good news, or gospel.  The gospel of Augustus read:
The providence which has ordered the whole of our life showing concern and zeal has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving it to augustus by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor for men and by sending in him as it were a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war cease, to create order everywhere . . ; the birthday of the god (Augustus) was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him. . .
Approximately 30 years later a new gospel was proclaimed.  Not to the Roman elite, nor to her scholars, but to shepherds,
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be for all people.  For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. . . Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
In the gospel of Jesus there is something distinctly Jewish.  He is born in the City of David.  He is called Savior.  He is proclaimed as Christ the Lord.  But in the gospel of Jesus there is a message that is decidedly Hellenistic, Greek, Roman – this is the child through whom true Pax, or peace will come.
The term Pax is a Latin term that implies peace that comes through a dominant ruler.  When the birth of Christ was announced it was not the proclamation of a new holiday, it was the good news that the Messiah had begun his quest to take over the world.  Herod, whom we will discuss later, knew this.  Pilate knew this.  As Christianity incubated and grew during the Pax Romana and proclaimed that Jesus is Lord, all of Rome’s emperors from Tiberius to Constantine would understand the ramifications of this new gospel proclamation.  We read Luke 2 as if it were simply a “season’s greetings”, but Luke knew what he was writing.  God has sent us His Christ and in Him Pax, world dominating peace, will come.
As we proclaim the gospel of Christ in 2011 the world is in turmoil.  It is difficult to find peace.  As economies crumble world rulers are seeking ways to strengthen the nations.  We have lost all sense of Pax, peace and prosperity.  Ironically as governments fail, it seems that people grow more trusting of political solutions to the chaos.  We seek Pax in the very governments and political parties that have failed us.  Over the last decade in America we have experienced the loss of the republic through the greatest movements toward centralized government in our nation’s 200+ year history.  We are war weary.  We are not good students of history and thus we are ignorant of the parallels that seek to teach us.  We swallow the propaganda and seek another Augustus.
It is in this context that the message of the gospel must become radical again.  2000 years ago, Luke 2 was radical, treasonous, and tremendous.  For the last 100 years the Church has grown vanilla and we have lost the meaning of our proclamation.  We are not saying Happy Holidays, although these days the 'verbage' seems to be our chiefest of concerns.  Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, do we really understand what it means that the Christ is born.  In the gospel we are not merely greeting the season.  The gospel is not a poem on a Hallmark card.  The gospel is a call to devotion in one centralized power, the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  For those who repent of sin and call upon His name the reign of peace begins in them, now.  While the world descends into the chaos from which it came in Genesis 1, the followers of Christ do not lose heart, they do not lose focus, instead they proclaim that Pax is found in Christ alone and they wait faithfully for His return and the culmination of His Kingdom.  In Christ world peace will come.  The message of Christmas is not focused on a manger, but on a throne.  The path to that throne is through the cross.  Christ has invited the sinner to come with Him and die so that we may live, like Him, with Him, in Him, in Pax.  The Christian life is not Pax Romana, but Pax Animae – a soul brought to peace through the dominant rule of Christ over their life.
Christmas is a call to decide.  Who rules, now?  Do we seek only Pax Romana, a peace that is destined to decay?  Do we need another Augustus?   Or do we seek Pax Animae, the peace of a soul that is brought about by a life dominated by the rule of Christ?  This is the message of Luke to us.  Peace is not found in men and we are deceived to believe that lasting peace is possible Rome.  In Christ a true ruler who brings everlasting peace is found.  Follow Him. 


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