The Nativity Story's True Message

John Dominic Crossan on the characters in Jesus' birth story--the Magi, shepherds, angels--as anti-Roman protesters.

John Dominic Crossan is Professor Emeritus of DePaul University in Chicago and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar. He has written 20 books on the historical Jesus in the last 30 years, four of which have been bestsellers. We interviewed him about his recent book with co-author Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom. Crossan believes that Paul tried to carry Jesus' peaceful message into the pagan Roman world--and was largely successful. But Crossan says although Jesus' and Paul's message is as relevant as ever, we're not listening--even at Christmas. "Peace becomes the great ornament we hang each year on the tree of the world," he says, "only to pack it away again in the basement of history."

What was the Roman world like at the time of Jesus' birth?

In the century before Jesus' birth, the Romans were just ripping each other apart. Until a few decades before Jesus was born, the Roman system had a marvelous administrative way of avoiding tyranny by not having a king, but by putting in two consuls, who were like kings for a year. Each of them kept an eye on the other. That system had worked fine for the Romans for centuries.

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But as soon as they got an empire in the century before Jesus' birth, the two consuls started to grab more and more power, and they weren't going to share. They were in transition from a republic, which had worked for 600 years, to an empire. They took the mightiest military machine of its age, split it in two, and sent it against one another, so Italy was being ripped apart, Greece was being ripped apart, the whole Mediterranean world was being destroyed. When finally Caesar Augustus won out--he was the last one standing--there was a huge collective sigh of relief from all over the Mediterranean.

This was the 2nd of September, 31 B.C.E., 31 years before Jesus' birth. At that point, the elite said, "It's over, it's over, peace." The economy started booming again, the sea lanes were free of pirates, the roads were relatively free for commerce. So Caesar Augustus became a god incarnate.

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