There is another story of Jesus' birth in the New Testament in addition to the familiar stories in Matthew and Luke. It is in the book of Revelation, that strange, wonderful, and sometimes dreadful collection of visions narrated by an early Christian prophet named John. These visions use the language of symbol and myth to indict the Roman Empire and confirm Jesus as the true "Lord."
John's vision of the birth of Jesus is the first of a series of three connected visions in Revelation 12-13. As Revelation 12 begins, we see a woman clothed with the sun, a crown of 12 stars on her head, and the moon under her feet, pregnant with a male child who is to rule the nations. As she gives birth, a great dragon with seven heads and 10 horns waits to devour the child. But the child is rescued, snatched away to the throne of God.
In the second vision, the scene shifts to heaven. We see a cosmic battle between the dragon and the archangel Michael and his angels. The dragon is defeated and cast down to earth.
In the third vision, John takes us back to earth. The dragon gives his authority to a beast who (like him) has seven heads and 10 horns. We see the beast rise out of the sea and take control of the earth. People worship the beast. Its number, John tells us at the end of Chapter 13, is 666.
What is this all about? Like Revelation as a whole, these three visions use symbolism and myth. To begin with the symbols, the meaning of several is fairly obvious.
In the first vision, the child is Jesus. Though the second vision is set in heaven, the means by which the dragon is defeated is an event on earth. He has been conquered "by the blood of the Lamb," that is, by the cross of Jesus.
Finally, in the third vision, the symbolic meaning of the beast to whom the dragon gives his authority is also clear. The beast rules the earth. In John's late first-century setting, that means the Roman Empire and its emperor ("Caesar").
So also the number 666 points to Rome. In that world, letters of the alphabet had numerical values. Thus a word or name could be turned into a number by adding up the numerical equivalents of its letters (a technique known as gematria). Using the Hebrew alphabet, the numerical value of "Caesar Nero" is 666. (Nero reigned from 54 C.E. to 68 C.E.)
The beast appears again in Revelation 17, now with a rider: a great harlot clothed in regal splendor. What is said about her confirms the identification of the beast with the Roman Empire. We are told that she is the great city, built upon seven hills or mountains, who rules the earth. Her name is "Babylon," a symbolic name for Rome among late first-century Jews and Christians.
Thus Jesus is the child, Rome is the beast, and the means of Rome's defeat is the cross. But the symbolism becomes even more powerful by recognizing the archetypal myth that shapes these chapters and Revelation as a whole: the ancient cosmic combat myth.
Appearing in many cultures, ancient and modern, it is a story of conflict between good and evil. In the ancient Near East, the archetypal plot involved a god or gods of light, order and life fighting against an evil power of darkness, disorder, and death. The evil power was commonly imaged as a dragon, sea monster, or primeval serpent.
The myth is central to one of the Near East's oldest creation stories, the Enuma Elish. In it, the god Marduk creates the world by slaying Tiamat, who, like the dragon of Revelation 12-13, is a seven-headed monster of chaos associated with the sea.
Traces of the myth are found in the Hebrew Bible, where the dragon is commonly named Leviathan. In the New Testament, the cosmic combat myth lies behind a primary interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Often called the Christus Victor understanding of Good Friday and Easter, it portrays Jesus' death and resurrection as the means whereby God defeated the powers that hold humankind in bondage. It is reflected in one of the most common Christian icons: St. George (or Michael) slaying the dragon.
Rome also knew and used the ancient cosmic combat myth. Its most widespread version in the Mediterranean world of the first century was the story of Apollo and Python. Apollo was the son of Zeus (and thus son of God), and also a god in his own right: the god of light, order, and life.
The story of Apollo's birth is remarkably similar to the vision in Revelation 12. Apollo's human mother, Leto, is pregnant by Zeus. As Apollo's birth nears, Python--the primordial serpent/dragon--waits to devour him. But Apollo is delivered and, after he grows up, battles and kills Python.
This story was central to the religious and political ideology of the Roman Empire. Ever since the first emperor, Augustus, brought the devastating civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar to an end, ushering in the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) and a Golden Age, the emperors of Rome were given divine titles. They were known as filius deus (son of god), dominus (lord), and even deus(god).
Augustus was heralded as a god and savior who had brought peace on earth. As an inscription from 9 B.C.E. in Asia Minor puts it:
The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the beginning of all things. . . . 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 as a Savior, has put an end to war. . . .The birthday of the god Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of good news [the Greek word is euaggelion, commonly translated "gospel"].
Thus Rome saw itself as playing the role of Apollo, who had brought in a golden age of light and order and peace by slaying Python, the mythical power of darkness, disorder, and death. Indeed, at least two emperors--Caesar Augustus and Nero--explicitly styled themselves as Apollo.
The vision of Jesus' birth in Revelation unmistakably echoes the story of Apollo's birth, even as John reverses the imperial version. It is a remarkable subversion. Caesar is not Apollo. Rather, Jesus plays that role: He is the light of the world who brings in the golden age of peace on earth. And, rather than being Apollo who slays the beast, Rome is the beast.
The story of Jesus' birth in Revelation thus has both religious and political meanings. John portrays the domination system of imperial Rome as the opposite of what it claimed to be.Far from bringing peace on earth, Rome is the incarnation of the ancient dragon, the source of disorder, violence, and death. The Roman imperial order John speaks of was politically oppressive, economically exploitative, and religiously blasphemous. The Revelation story is a pointed indictment of empire and, by extension, of domination systems wherever and whenever they appear.
The same religious and political indictment of Rome and the domination system is found in Luke's Christmas story. To shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, an angel of the Lord declares: "I bring 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 then the song of the heavenly host heralds Jesus as the one who brings peace on earth.
As in Revelation, Luke's story uses and reverses the language of Roman imperial ideology. Jesus' birth--not Caesar's--is the good news. Jesus--not Caesar--is the true Savior and Lord. Jesus--not the power of empire--is the one who brings peace on earth.